Burning Questions in a Burning World
Making the Most of the Revolutionary Situation That Isn’t
By Eugene Violet
We must not turn away from the truth: we do not yet possess the capacity for revolution, otherwise we would have seen a unified mass movement come out of the remarkable revolutionary energy of the past decade. And yet, we have very little time to get there. This is the contradiction and the duty of our generation: decolonization or extinction.
– The Red Deal (39).
I once worked closely with a communist who criticized me for using Climate Change in organizing conversations. They felt that the path to socialism is blazed through right ideas leading to right action, and that invoking the specter of Climate Change was “cheating.” They later became a COVID-denialist and anti-vax fanatic, and just like that, one of the most principled, committed organizers I ever worked alongside banished themselves to abject crankery. Revolution is not the product of correct ideas or even right actions: revolution occurs when those with good ideas and the courage to leap into the unknown recognize revolutionary conditions and make the most of them, using any and all tools at their disposal to help radicalize and redirect the masses towards effective collective action. The idealists are left in the dust, abandoned by the people for whom they claim to speak, outpaced by those willing to put their ideas into practice, those who recognize conditions for what they are and relinquish the idea of “controlling” the moment, who accept their role of stewardship, offering order amid chaos and analysis amidst idealism.
Once the correct ideas characteristic of the advanced class are grasped by the masses, these ideas turn into a material force which changes society and changes the world.
– Mao, “Where Do Correct Ideas Come From?”
The place for correct ideas in the revolution is certainly at the vanguard, but the implementation of correct ideas must often wait until the initial revolutionary moment passes and the revolutionary consolidation begins. The Bolsheviks of Russia often trailed the street action of the ascendant proletariat, Anarchists, and especially the mutinying soldiers of the Imperial Army, as well as the zealous sailors of Kronstadt. Imperial Rot of the Czar’s government and the reformist paralysis of the Duma created the conditions for the generally unfocused uprising of the people, and the Bolsheviks, who had been consistent in their “correct ideas,” especially Lenin’s concept of “revolutionary defeatism” and slogan of “All power to the Soviets!” were able to eventually seize control of the moment and consolidate the gains of the revolution. In the wake of the capitulation and the first major defeat of the German Left, this was a nice consolation prize for the global Left. As the Chinese Communists would later discover, intraparty organization, temporary alliances of convenience, and revolutionary patience are necessary components of victory for any revolutionary movement.
Revolution does not arrive on the terms of revolutionaries. Revolution is a synthesis of the thesis of old system collapse and the antithesis of new system ascendance. The abortive German revolution of 1918 failed because of an irresolvable contradiction: the old revolutionaries of Marx’s own Social Democratic Party refused to let the system which held them in positions of prominence as the labor bourgeoisie fully collapse. They did not hand power to the Spartacists. Those with the power to do so were, unlike the exiled Lenin, unwilling to relinquish their positions in the existing state. Ebert and his SPD government mobilized the Freikorps to crush Liebknecht, Luxemburg, and the Spartacist revolutionaries to defend their positions of relative comfort within the Capitalist state, which in turn paved the way for Nazism.
So where does that leave us in the 2020s, in a world on fire, gripped by a pandemic, with a working class reeling from austerity blow after blow, nestled in the bosom of an empire constructed as a vessel for reaction, designed to export misery to any pocket of resistance to global Capitalism, no matter how small? The answer is: it doesn’t matter. Act as if. Exiled Lenin on the train rode rails which stretched off into an abyss of uncertainty. He tracked the train’s progress and predicted the coming turns to the best of his abilities. He was eventually proven correct. The party he created, fought to forge alongside Trotsky and Kollontai and Bukharin, in the restive barracks and on the mobilizing factory floors, was good enough to weather the storm of exigencies hurled their way. The answer is organization. Building power by any and every effective means. A capable revolutionary organization can politicize the masses and coordinate struggle in many different arenas, including electorally when the opportunity presents itself. Lenin attracted the people to his banner by saying the true thing and then offering the proper analysis, even as his rivals lied, vacillated, and pandered. His positions were popular, unpopular, divisive, galvanizing, and, finally, vindicated. The point is, he was pragmatically flexible, but his goal was unchanging. His correct ideas, and the ideas adopted by his democratically constructed but centrally disciplined Bolshevik party, became a force that could change the world only via his willingness to couple these right ideas with right action and on-the-fly adjustment in the face of ever-shifting revolutionary conditions.
But we in the present lack the skeleton of the Party, the steely spine to which working-class muscle may attach itself. We lack the legacy of Iskra, the Bolshevik party magazine which galvanized the intellectuals and challenged the party to harden and define itself through clashes of ideas and analysis of conditions. As Lenin himself said in his “Declaration of the Editorial Board of Iskra” (1900), “The need for consolidation and for a definite form and organisation is felt with irresistible force in the movement itself.” Lenin’s solution? The Party: “The following practical conclusion is to be drawn from the foregoing: we Russian Social-Democrats must unite and direct all our efforts towards the formation of a strong party which must struggle under the single banner of revolutionary Social-Democracy." The label may have changed in the last 100+ years, but the struggle remains the same: to work for the formation of a “strong party” to be simultaneously agitating for revolutionary conditions while organizing itself and the masses to be ready when said conditions arise, as the Bolsheviks did so well.
“In war, offence and defence, advance and retreat, victory and defeat are all mutually contradictory phenomena. One cannot exist without the other. The two aspects are at once in conflict and in interdependence, and this constitutes the totality of a war, pushes its development forward and solves its problems.”
– Mao paraphrasing Lenin, “On Contradiction”
These “should” be revolutionary conditions but they are not. Why? How did we end up in this cul-de-sac of a movement, and how can we punch through? Firstly: COINTELPRO and CHAOS did their jobs. The Deep State, ever at war with itself, cooperated long enough to mutilate a mass movement in the making. Great American Revolutionary Hampton lay dead, his party shattered, his coalition existing now in confused, desperate shards throughout the scattered American “Left.” We're still living with the consequences of this sabotage of the American communist movement.
The specter of the Soviet Union and its (not unaided) collapse, or the existing, besieged postcolonial socialist states like Cuba, Venezuela, and the DPRK serve as cautionary tales to American idealistic leftists, and their response is to decry “authoritarianism” and to claim that these places lack the right ideas. What they lack is the freedom to develop, and that is due to the failure of the American left to defang the empire. The crass anticommunism of the anarchists, Trotskyists, and “Democratic Socialists” who rose to prominence on the American Left just as union power was being crushed and domestic revolutionary movements put down by force is an impediment to the rise of genuine revolutionary sentiment. We find ourselves in a Left searching for correct ideas, engaged in the liberal magical thinking that there are incantations which can unshackle the global proletariat. The only tools we have are the hammer and the sickle. Global socialism has not arisen because global capitalism’s arsenal is still fully stocked and readily deployed. It is the duty of a resurgent American Left to neutralize this arsenal of reaction, to bring about the collapse of the military-industrial complex via a mass movement fueled by strike action, bold “grassroots” legislation, and other extreme methods.
As Lenin grasped, the collapse of your own imperial order must precede the ascendancy of the revolutionary order: “During a reactionary war a revolutionary class cannot but desire the defeat of its government” (Lenin, “The Defeat of One’s Own Government in the Imperialist War” 1915). For the American Left, the prospect of the necessary chaos and disruption is terrifying. Such positions are called “accelerationist” or even “nihilistic.” Let us be clear: we want to ensure the comfort and safety of the working class. Concepts like mutual aid and solidarity will help us collectively survive the upheaval to come. But that upheaval is necessary. The current upheaval is a cyclical boom and bust veering more off-kilter with every lurch—a natural product of the insane, leaderless thrashings of Capital in its imperial stage, where the dictates of the market are myriad, contradictory, and fatal to the entire human race. Revolutionary upheaval, on the other hand, is guided; it is the phenomenon of the working class, the masses, rising up to smash the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. It is guided by necessity, survival, and by all those who not only know what must be done but also have the courage to do it when it is necessary and to stop doing it when it is no longer effective—to try something new.
The dictatorship of the bourgeoisie itself is falling apart beneath the “anarchy of the market.” The market demands that the COVID pandemic be allowed to continue rampaging indefinitely because halting commerce is against the logic of the market, even though the market cannot survive the rampaging of the virus. The market demands that the collective action needed to stop the virus, like making vaccines free and rapid testing ubiquitous, be resisted, because collective action, despite striking libertarians as authoritarian, empowers the masses and gets us working together on a common project for a greater good, which is anathema to the market. This COVID crisis and the crisis of Climate Change are crises which can create moments of revolutionary aperture, periods of disruption and chaos amid which new orders may form. So what do we do? We refine our principles, build our bases, and wait to strike.
We are agents of change. We are drivers of the engines of history. The edifice neoliberalism has built atop the rubble of the Berlin Wall, emblazoned with Fukuyama’s wry pronouncement of “The End of History,” has left a Left without belief in not only a better future but any future. This fatalism seeps into art, media, culture, and yes, Left politics. You may witness a retreat into the sheer idealism of Anarchism and utopian communism, but in practice, you are more likely to witness the crass opportunism of those who are so busy “meeting people where they’re at” that they forget to be anywhere themselves. This type will caution patience and commitment to the program—a program which winds up getting coopted and defanged by the Democratic Party without fail. They will follow glitzy stars into congress, to the Met gala, will justify their every failing, rationalize loudly their every betrayal of workers, of the poor, of the victims of US imperialism, all because they are branded as Socialists, or even just progressives. Then you have the shrieking adventurist, the strident Cassandra no one takes seriously or listens to; the ultraleftist, the idealist, dealing only in correct ideas and an ever shrinking chorus of true believers. Many of us find ourselves filling both roles at times, cautioning patience with one hand while holding existing movements to impossible standards with the other. This is the Left without the Party, without overt discussions of ideas, without programs offering unabashedly Marxian analysis. This is the Left without a program of action, afraid of discipline, of failure, of irrelevance, cynical about rebirth, skeptical of a diversity of tactics, and lacking a strong central pole.
If we are to build a party that can step into revolutionary situations, we must learn from past struggles, analyze present conditions, offer sober critique, and present concrete plans of action. The Three Whales of Bolshevism, Zapata’s Tierra y Libertad, the 10 Point Plans of the Black Panther Party, and the Red Deal are clear lines in the sand and programs of liberation. Power concedes nothing without a demand, but demands without the unity of the masses behind them are merely ideas. We must ask ourselves: what are our goals and what is our program for achieving them? The vehicle for this discussion is The Party, which can endure the vicissitudes of the discourse, protect the people, hoist the banner, and lead the way. It is forged out of existing political groups, community organizations, left unions, and other as-yet-unforeseen comrades-in-waiting. With this structure in place, organized around these agreed-upon principles, and willing to act correctly and effectively in the interests of the advancement of the working class as a whole against the interests of the Capitalist class and its allies, a structure can be built to both survive and seize revolutionary conditions. We will know when the time is right when we are with the people, for we ARE the people, and we only lose the people if we convince ourselves we are apart from the people. In the words of Fred Hampton, “I am the people, I'm not the pig. You got to make a distinction. And the people are going to have to attack the pigs. The people are going to have to stand up against the pigs.” That is what we must do all over the world, for the pigs are everywhere, feeding on human misery even as the edifice of the structure which empowers them seemingly collapses around them. It will reconstitute unless we make sure it is destroyed.
There is no creating a revolutionary condition, there is only recognizing it when it arises and having the organization ready to strike. This requires a disciplined Workers’ Party making the case for revolution consistently and standing against the opportunism of the existing Left, against charges of accelerationism and authoritarianism, and standing proudly for a united, powerful communist movement, one organized around this proletarian force which is capable of anything. This force, when unleashed, will be intent on seizing power for all the people, and for building a sustainable world capable of surviving and eventually reversing the ravages of climate change, war, and the degradation of human welfare in the name of profit. Yes, Capitalism is the disease, and yes, Socialism is the cure. We need a workers’ party which can deliver the proper dose when the vein is exposed.
Eugene Violet is a member of DSA San Francisco.