And Spring arose on the garden fair,
Like the Spirit of Love felt everywhere;
And each flower and herb on Earth’s dark breast
Rose from the dreams of its wintry rest.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, the revolutionary English poet, wrote these lines in 1819. The years in which he grew up, when revolution was in the air, had given way to a time like ours: ruling-class parasites and reactionaries seemed invincible. He yearned for a mass revolutionary movement to challenge them.
His moods oscillate between despondency and optimism. He employs metaphors based on nature—wind, volcanoes, plants, the seasons—to express his deeply felt anger at injustices inflicted on the oppressed by governments and capitalists. But his poetic images also illustrate the belief, to which he tenaciously clings, that the mass of workers and the poor will again “rise like lions” to confront their oppressors.
If you empathise with the young poet’s turmoil two hundred years ago, this article aims to convince you of a strong theme in his writing: that spring must follow winter.
The industrial revolution was just taking off and the working class was in its infancy. Shelley instinctively saw that the vicious system of capitalism would breed discontent and struggles. During the “wintry rest”, quiescence does not necessarily signify contentment. Anger and discontent grow beneath the surface, seeds germinating for the inevitable burst of spring protests and struggles.
The history of capitalism in the intervening two centuries proved Shelley right.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, three decades after the untimely death of Shelley—whose revolutionary spirit they greatly admired—began developing a theoretical and political analysis that justifies the young poet’s belief in the inevitability of recurring mass struggles.
They noted the effect of the constant changes to production as capitalists compete for markets and profits. “All that is solid melts into air”, they wrote in the Communist Manifesto. Colonial invasions foster racism against original populations; economic slumps or bankruptcy of individual companies throw people into unemployment; the environment is degraded; wars destroy millions of lives, creating refugees who join the ranks of the oppressed worldwide.
There is always at least a minority who are repelled by the inhumanity and destruction. But whether they can mobilise large numbers into protest depends on many factors. For instance, are workers combative and confident? Is there an organisation capable of inspiring and organising action?
Struggles that reach awe-inspiring heights give way to “wintry rest”. How long it lasts depends on the context. Is the movement crushed by ruling-class brutality? Or do wrong strategies and tactics lead to a stalemate that saps people’s energy and belief in their own ability to win, or a combination of both?
In Australia in 1974, the number of strikes per worker was one of the highest in the world; more than 50 percent of workers were union members. The women’s liberation movement changed our lives. Thousands of radical students and workers stood up against US imperialism and Australia’s support for its war on Vietnam. Radicalised youth questioned everything, fought for education reforms.
So why did the radicalism give way to the “wintry rest” we chafe against today?
The Communist Party and the ALP convinced most militant workers that class collaboration would achieve more gains than class struggle. The Labor government’s Prices and Incomes Accord brought union officials to the table to negotiate with employers who, more class conscious than our side, inflicted defeat after defeat of previously strong unions. Unions policed their members, enforcing a mutually agreed moratorium on strikes.
And so the rich engorged themselves as workers’ living standards, welfare, health and education were cut under Labor from 1983 to 1996.
Workers weren’t totally crushed but were badly placed to fight the Labor government. There was widespread confusion as former traditions of organisation and struggle were denigrated and undermined. Union membership suffered a catastrophic decline to just 12 percent of workers today. Movement activists were impacted by this process, limiting determined, militant struggle.
So the apparent apathy today is not a “natural” state in Australia. It is the consequence of the arguments by reformists. They initiated this disaster and won because there was no socialist organisation large enough to win the confidence of militant workers to fight Labor’s introduction of neoliberalism.
Will there ever be another spring?
As Shelley, Marx and Engels thought, capitalism will provoke new waves of struggle. Shelley wrote about this in his political poem “The Mask of Anarchy” in 1819. It was his response to the Peterloo Massacre of peaceful protesters in Manchester. He recognised that the state’s repression could provoke people into action:
And that slaughter to the Nation
Shall steam up like inspiration,
A volcano heard afar.
Shelley thought workers could seize the opportunity created by the state’s open display of brutal repression. He wanted them to recognise their potential power against their capitalist rulers. He hoped his words would help foster and build the struggle into an uprising:
And these words shall then become
Like Oppression’s thundered doom
Ringing through each heart and brain,
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number—
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few.
This poem has inspired generations in their struggles. It is a clarion call to fight, not just plead or petition for our rights.
Shelley’s poetic urging is still relevant today. Our situation is not frozen for all time.
Capitalism is irrational and crisis-prone: the inevitable economic slumps, wars, authoritarian governments, oppression all regularly provoke people into protesting. When exactly the inhumanity provokes a larger, more profound and all-encompassing reaction is not predictable.
Australia is part of the world system, so the first shoots of a new movement may be nurtured by events anywhere around the globe.
Israel has been murdering Palestinians and occupying their land since 1948. Gaza has been a prison denied basic necessities for sixteen years. Who, just months before October, could have predicted that the supposed “peace”—a dreadful term to describe subjugation by a genocidal state—would give way to war and global mass protests of support for the Palestinians? As I write, a new generation is rising, reinvigorating experienced campaigners.
Shelley hoped his writings would be scattered like seeds by the wind “to quicken a new birth” of struggle. Ideas can influence how people respond. However, it’s not ideas alone that drive millions into struggle, but the social reality of this inhuman system. Then, ideas can determine whether victories are won or the struggle falters.
Marx observed that in their struggles, workers’ political understanding and confidence could be rapidly transformed. This became one of the key theoretical understandings of Marxism. Revolutionaries such as Vladimir Lenin in Russia, Rosa Luxemburg in Germany and Antonio Gramsci in Italy all incorporated it into their theories of workers’ revolution.
As Lenin argued when addressing students in 1916: “Only struggle discloses to [the exploited class] the magnitude of its own power, widens its horizon, enhances its abilities, clarifies its mind, forges its will”.
People motivated to protest because of the suffering of the Palestinians can begin to see how capitalism is the root cause of not just this one issue, but of all the suffering and injustice.
But there is not some linear process from the first protests to mass movement and revolution. How far the struggles develop depends heavily on what strategies and tactics workers adopt. The slogans raised, the actions organised by leading activists can in particular moments turn the tide of struggle, and even of history.
Members of that revolutionary party that was missing in Australia in the 1970s need to be skilled at interpreting any given situation, how to convince activists of the next step, when to retreat, when to go forward, defeating political arguments that hold the struggle back.
These skills cannot be learnt simply from book learning, though studying past struggles is essential. Reading the mood, assessing which appeal will be likely to convince large numbers of militants, has to become second nature. Years of struggle inculcate members with an instinct that is the result of accumulated experience, suffering with the oppressed, celebrating their gains.
We can’t predict the terrain of struggles from general principles. Intervention by organised revolutionaries is a critical factor in determining the outcome.
And so, if you want to see transformative, mass left-wing radicalism in Australia, the time to be active is not when the struggle bursts out. It is now. The longer those who hope in their hearts for a world of equality, justice, beauty and joy hesitate to take the first steps, the more likely it will be that embryonic movements will fail to develop to their full potential.
This means being involved in organising campaigns wherever we can. Is there discontent on your campus or at work? If no-one argues to fight, the discontent can give way to resignation. The small struggles of today might seem inconsequential, but they are where the activists of the next spring of radicalism can develop the skills that might change the course of history.
Shelley’s optimism should be read as a clarion call to socialist activism now—because after such a long “wintry rest”, can spring be far behind?