What will "the revolution" look like?

July 11, 2019

 

Here's a blog post for you masochists who are interested in the debates that go on among Marxist intellectuals over questions around revolution, strategies to get from capitalism to socialism, Leninism and its relevance or lack thereof to the present, etc.

 

It's kind of remarkable, actually, how much collective time is devoted to these abstract questions, how many thousands of words are produced rehashing, relitigating, revising, rewriting, and reconsidering debates that took place a hundred years ago between those old comrades and rivals Lenin, Kautsky, Luxemburg, Bernstein, Trotsky, Pannekoek, and the rest of them. Back and forth fly the ripostes, on leftist websites like Jacobin and Verso: regarding Kautsky, for example, you might sample this, this, this, and this, for starters. For a more general perspective, here's an oft-cited contribution by the esteemed Vivek Chibber. Here's a more recent article that argues against both Leninism and social democracy. And so on and so forth.

 

Personally, my intellectual palate was constructed on principles different from those of this group of Jacobin/Verso/DSA/ISO leftists. I have a somewhat Chomskian palate, hyper-sensitive to the slightest savor of intellectual masturbation. Chomsky is famously skeptical of the whole enterprise of social and cultural theory, considering this particular sphere of thought to lack genuine intellectual content. For such content, he thinks (and I largely agree), you can turn to the sciences and philosophy: that's where the real intellectual challenges lie. For academic pomposity and love of "words, words, words," on the other hand, you can turn to Theory, whether liberal, anarchist, Marxist, conservative, postmodernist, feminist, deconstructionist, or whatever. 

 

Of course, that's a bit of a caricature: there's certainly some nugget of content in the Marxist "theoretical" (but empirically grounded) polemics of generations past and present. But it takes a lot of digging and discarding of dross -- the repetitions, rephrasings, obfuscations, caveats, terminological quibbles, erudition displays, historical digressions -- to get at the nugget buried under it all. And the nugget can usually be boiled down into a few paragraphs, at most. And it often amounts to a dressed-up formulation of common sense, relating, e.g., to how the State functions in capitalist society, or how best to organize the masses to challenge capitalists' control of the State.

 

(For an amusing, if unnecessarily savage, takedown of one form of pretentiously "theoretical" but intellectually nugatory Marxist thinking, see Russell Jacoby's devastating critique in Dissent of Erik Olin Wright's book Envisioning Real Utopias.)

 

In the end, I find, the upshot of all the intellectual effort devoted to revolutionary strategy is apt to be something like: it's important for workers to organize themselves in their neighborhoods and workplaces so as to fight for democratic community control of resources, a long-term project in which militant, democratically run unions will quite possibly play a leading role, not least to establish a left-wing political party while, perhaps, dragging the Democratic Party as far left as it can possibly go (which might not be very far at all), with the ultimate goal of taking over and restructuring (it's often called "smashing") the state and instituting public control of the entire economy, both through nationalization of key industries and also worker takeovers of smaller businesses and community control of local affairs.

 

Profound.

 

Nevertheless, I, too, have dipped my toe into the morass of self-indulgent theorizing, albeit in such a way that my Chomskian intellectual palate wasn't overly offended. (Sorry to mix metaphors.) I've dipped my toe, even stepped in up to my knees, but have quickly got out of there lest I be sucked in under and never heard from again. Namely, I wrote a book called Worker Cooperatives and Revolution, in a couple chapters of which I tweaked the Marxist notion of revolution to make it more timely, more meaningful, and more consistent with historical materialism. I tried to avoid needlessly erudite referencing of the old polemics, but I did find it necessary to at least mention Lenin and Luxemburg a little. 

 

While I realize originality is frowned on in Marxist discussions of revolution -- originality is heresy, you see -- I have to confess I think I may have stumbled into a few original ideas. So I submitted, in essay form, some of these ideas to a few publications months and years ago, and a couple of the publications, startlingly, published them. One of them was Regeneration Magazine: here's the article, in which you might be interested if, as I said, you're one of those masochists who immerses himself in these debates.

 

The unorthodox notions and formulations in that article provoked some mild outrage among Leninist types, and a response was soon published, here. I was impressed by its relative cogency, and, having a bit of the intellectual masturbator in me despite all professions to the contrary, I wanted to write a response to the response. Unfortunately the editors didn't let me. So I took my response to the magazine's Facebook page and distilled it into a comment there.

 

Here, at last, we get to the point of this blog post. It occurred to me today that I might as well post that Facebook comment of mine here, because, well, I think I was right, and I think Marxists are wrong to have contempt for the "solidarity economy," which I defended in the article and the book it was based on. Activism of all shapes and sizes is necessary, not only "Leninist" sorts of activism, and the "revolution," if it happens, will take generations. It won't be "ruptural" in the way Lenin's conquest of the Russian state was. But the whole long process will be punctuated by innumerable little "ruptures" -- that word is very popular, I've noticed, and if you suggest the revolution will be gradual you'll inevitably encounter the objection "No, it has to be ruptural! There has to be an actual rupture with capitalism!" So, okay, there will be a rupture -- in fact lots of ruptures, ruptures everywhere, decade after decade, generation after generation! It'll be a long, long transition, full of all the ruptures you could possibly want, on the municipal level, the regional level, the national level, and the international level.

 

But if you want to actually understand the logic of this revolution, and want to situate its gradualism in a Marxist theoretical context, well, as far as I can see, the only way to do that is to rethink the very notion of revolution in the way I did in the book. 

 

So here, without further ado, is my response to Alyson Escalante's response to my pretensions to having lit upon The Truth. (Sadly, for you to fully understand what's written below, it's probably necessary to read both my and her essays.)...

 

*

 

This is an interesting and thoughtful article that raises some important points. I'll try to keep my response here rather brief. First, I see I should have made my own article longer, by spelling out in more depth the ideas in the book it's based on. That book answers many of the points Alyson makes. (If I were to write it today, I'd place less emphasis on worker cooperatives. But I still subscribe to the broader theoretical arguments.) It's only necessary to read chapters 4 and 6 for a more comprehensive account than the one I gave in the article.

To answer the crucial question Alyson raised of why the capitalist state would tolerate the gradual growth of a more socialist economy, I noted that it will have no choice. Liberal elites in certain states and localities are already facilitating the emergence of various 'cooperative' institutions, though not yet on a very visible scale. But the point is that as economic stagnation and crisis intensifies in the next few decades, the state will have no other choice but to acquiesce in the growth of these institutions (and others we doubtless can't foresee at present) -- simply to assuage discontent. The "solidarity economy" is seen as relatively unthreatening to capitalist power, since it's decentralized. So it's safe for the capitalist state to support. The logic, though, is that as climate chaos and economic crisis overwhelm the administrative capacities of a largely reactionary state, "decentralized" quasi-socialist institutions will spread more and more to address the desperate needs of the populace. It's impossible to spell out this process in great detail beforehand. But the main point is that, by the time the solidarity economy [i.e., the 'cooperative' and non-capitalist 'sector(s)' of society] gets really dangerous to capitalism, it will simply be impossible to destroy it, since it will have spread too far and too deeply internationally. There will be too many thousands of anti-capitalist institutions to destroy. Moreover, after decades of development, they will have accumulated sufficient resources for their leftist adherents to control much of state policy. Again, it's impossible to predict how the battle between left and right will play out on the level of the (national) state -- but since the left is already developing some electoral momentum, one can predict that, as more of its candidates are elected to office, it'll continue to facilitate the emergence of solidarity institutions and be able to defend them against right-wing politicians (some of whom, in fact, support (e.g.) cooperatives, not understanding their long-term anti-capitalist potential).

Nowhere in my article did I say there's no role for far-left political parties. Of course there is. That should go without saying, since it's obvious. It's necessary to, as soon as possible, seize control of the state from the right. But the reality is that this will take a long time.

From one perspective, I think it would be great if "insurrections" happened. But given the balance of power, they don't have much chance of success. In the time of the French Revolution, for instance, it was possible for insurrections to have some success. But military technology was at an infinitely more primitive level then than it is now. I don't see how anyone can believe that the left has any chance in a military fight against the ruling class and the state. We'd be crushed like insects. Even after a decade or two of developing political parties -- we'd be crushed. It would be a bloodbath. And the right would be in control again. That's a suicidal strategy. Nothing like that Leninist "insurrectionary" strategy is appropriate to conditions of late capitalism. 

And even if, by some miracle, a far-left party did manage to seize (whether through elections or some other strategy) total control of a central capitalist state, like, say, Britain, well then other states would send in their militaries or drones or whatnot to crush the rebellion. Or at least they'd apply severe economic sanctions. And the domestic capitalist class would, in effect, go on strike. It's completely hopeless.

Again, it's true that violent uprisings were able to succeed during the long transition from feudalism to capitalism. But, as I said in my article, that was possible only because the capitalist economy had already, over centuries, spread across western Europe. The political revolutions presupposed the gradual growth of the capitalist economy! Which is exactly parallel to the argument I made, that a socialist economy has to gradually spread first [albeit aided by incremental changes in state policy] in order for the final political revolutions against the capitalist class to succeed. 

Alyson misunderstands my argument, maybe because I presented it in a truncated form. I'm well aware that violence is necessary and inevitable. Because I'm not an idiot. I'm aware that sooner or later it will be necessary to seize the state. (And in fact, violence is inevitable at every stage of the long evolution, from the present to the final realization of a socialist society.) The difference between me and other Marxists is simply that I have a more realistic understanding of the preconditions that are necessary in order for seizures of the state to succeed. Just as capitalists could only "seize the state" after centuries of the gradual expansion of the market economy--which provided the necessary material foundation for their successful political revolutions between the 17th and 19th centuries--so socialists won't be able to totally control states (especially on the global level) until socialist production relations have already colonized much of the world. There has to be an economic foundation for the conquest of political power! This is a very Marxist point, despite the fact that apparently no other Marxist has made it (in the form I have, at least). In other words, Marxists have traditionally misunderstood the strategic implications of historical materialism.

"My" "strategy" is just as confrontational and "revolutionary" as that of any other Marxist. The difference is the timeline. And the sense of realism I've tried to bring to the conversation.

As for the long timeline: yes, in light of climate change, that's a problem. But it's not my problem, because I'm only describing obvious realities. (Such as the reality that a working-class seizure of the U.S. government isn't going to happen, say, in the next decade.) Luckily, as I pointed out in a previous post, we can make some progress against climate change even in the framework of a dying capitalism. It isn't all or nothing. There's a lot that can be done to mitigate climate change right now, even though we live in a capitalist society.

In short: yes, of course, revolutionary organizing is necessary. But it shouldn't be directed only at conquering the summits of political power. Many different kinds of revolutionary organizing are possible, and necessary. And other types of organizing are also necessary, e.g. organizing to tackle climate change immediately, not only after some prophesied socialist revolution. We can't wait for a revolution; the problem is too urgent.

With regard to the other points Alyson made, I'd just ask that interested readers take a look at the book (specifically chapters 4 and 6).

 

*

 

There you have it. A short comment on a short summary of the longer contribution (in my book) I tried to make to the often intellectually sterile century-old debate over how to conceptualize the transition from capitalism to socialism. I continue to think that my arguments, despite their un-academic form, have more intellectual substance than the needlessly verbose and self-consciously erudite articles and books of most academic Marxists. 

 

But anyway, as I've said, none of this matters terribly. It's important not to take oneself too seriously, especially if one is an intellectual! Such rarefied discussions as these can hardly have much practical effect on the daily, concrete work that thousands of activists are doing, including the work that Marxists themselves do. 

 

So....enough of this. Back to work! Don't theorize, organize!

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