Why Revolution?

by Mike Carey on January 14, 2014

In the article The Revolution: A Cherished Failure, Yeksmesh argues for the abandonment of revolution in favour of the creation of socialistic economic forms upon which a socialist consciousness can then be raised. A lot of this article has merit: it is certainly true that we have a tendency to be uncritical about the concept of revolution, solidifying it as a dogma to be taken on faith, rather than a critical engagement with what revolution means. As s/he argues, there is a damaging tendency to blur the lines between genuine revolution and a sort of Blanquist coup d’etat carried out by the most conscious of professional revolutionaries on behalf of the working class. Nevertheless, it is wrong to disarm ourselves of the concept of revolution for reasons fundamental to the socialist project itself, and the proposed economic gradualism is the idea of reformation of capitalism by degrees under the continued class rule of the bourgeoisie, i.e., a non-starter.

The confusions in the anti-revolutionary argument can be traced to a mechanical conception of historical materialism, by which the economic base determines the superstructure in a simple way. As s/he writes:

it is the materialist conception of history that the superstructure within societies (ideas, governing structures, etc.) is derived from the material base of the society in question.

I think that this is a misunderstanding of Marxism, which is about looking at the social reproduction of society as a whole, without regarding thought, consciousness, governing structures etc., as distinct from the materiality of society. Historical materialism isn’t about dividing the world into materialistic things and idealistic things, and then privileging the former, it’s about a negation of this ideological split on a materialistic basis.

The purely ‘economic’ conditions for revolution already exist — capitalism has furnished us with a highly socialized workforce and a highly developed division of labour. The ‘productive forces’ are more than developed enough to be seen as a prelude to socialism — welfare state-capitalism showed itself as a perversion of socialism, as the potential for socialism refracted through the prism of capitalistic social relations, while our post-Fordist, globalized societies (what Paolo Virno calls ‘the communism of capital’ and Guy Debord calls the ‘integrated spectacle’) show a perversion of communistic potential in a similar way. The great armies of the unemployed and unemployable, the proliferation of socially useless industries and of ‘bullshit jobs’, etc., point to the fact that the minimization of labour is possible, while the great global monopolies show that conscious direction of social reproduction is also possible.

However, instead of recognising only ‘the economic’ as material, we must recognise that ideology is material, that consciousness is material, that thought is material, etc. The way we act in our daily lives is the very stuff of the material base and reproduces the social relations of capitalism day by day. Thinking of the ‘material base’ as constituting only ‘Economics’ in the bourgeois sense hinders rather than helps any Marxist analysis.

Instead of looking only at the monetary economy as the bona fide material base, thinkers across diverse fields of knowledge have begun to analyse their subjects in terms of social reproduction in a Marxist way. Just one example: even emotional norms have been considered as part of how our society continually reproduces itself, working as what Sara Ahmed calls an ‘affective economy’. If we take the bourgeois fiction that the monetary economy is a distinct field, and then argue that this is all that constitutes our material existence and the rest is all just ‘superstructure’ and of no account, we will miss great swathes of our material existence essential to understanding how societies work and can be changed.

Yes, raising the consciousness of our class is difficult, but necessary. When we talk of ‘raising consciousness’ we don’t mean ‘filling up the heads of working class people with our doctrine’. We mean helping our class to sweep away ideological rubbish and think for ourselves, to see society as it is and as it could be. The consciousness of its participants is one of the key things distinguishing the reproduction of a socialist society from a capitalist one. This is a major distinction compared to previous modes of production which rely on coercion and ideological blindness — the means required for revolution are also the prerequisites for socialism. Consciousness is a material force, and one which we must master in order for a socialist society to work in the first place. So when Yeksmesh speaks of disregarding raising consciousness in order to focus on the ‘economic transition of a socialist society’, s/he misses that the most important feature of a socialist society is consciousness itself. The means and the end are inextricably and organically linked.

I hope by problematizing revolution in this way and outlining his/her alternative in articles to come, Yeksmesh will help us to sharpen our ideas and place revolution as more distinct from either political coup d’etat or reform. There is much to discuss on the form this revolution will take, as well as how to work practically in the here and now. However, if we do decide to abandon the notion of revolution and work for reform, there are very many historical examples to warn us it would be folly — just picture Germany 1918, and a government of reformist socialists empowering the far-right Freikorps and the army to crush the spontaneous uprising of the revolutionary working class.

By contrast, the history of revolution is not one of failure but one of hope and inspiration — the acknowledgement that at various critical points in history working class people just like us have stood up to emancipate themselves, that at various times we have stood up to the task of remaking the world.

  • Jane Evans

    Revolutions, writ small, always seem to be more or less monstrous. But there is little doubt that e.g. the secular and materialistic France we know today is superior to the priest-ridden nightmare of the Bourbon era, with its aristocratic parasites compared with whom even today’s capitalists seem benign.

    In the case of the Russian Revolution, as Chomsky among others (no friend of Stalinism, btw.) has pointed out, the result was a material standard of living and a gamut of social services including education and health care that, while in some respects inferior to circumstances in the West, constituted at least a “second world” standard–and this despite the innumerable crimes and instance unspeakable mass suffering attributable to Stalinism. Nowadays, under the influence of right-wing propaganda, nearly everyone assumes the Soviet Union to have been a failure in material terms. But what America feared in the ’60s wasn’t the material failure of the then Russian model, but its successes. Subsequently in Cuba and later in Venezuela, the costs of revolution have declined and the benefits have increased.

    We have to understand revolution as the total social transformation following the specific historical series of events called “revolutions,” not merely lthe localized sequences of events themselves.

    That revolution in the past has been so costly as to make its value doubtful should not obscure the fact that there has been progress in human history, and that none of it could have occurred without revolutions. Not to understand the horror, as well as the greatness, of human history is simply to fly in the face of facts, to substitute some nicey-pie Sunday School version of human reality for the stinking and atrocious reality. And to espouse that is to take the bourgeois side in the current class war. In the end, if we deny the horror, we will only end by giving it the victory.

    Nothing should deter us from striving to reduce the terrible costs and increase the benefits of revolution. But the terrible costs should not deter us from seeking revolution, defined not as the armed seizure of state power by a party but rather as the transformation of human potential into its optimal form. Stages in this transformation–always with terrible contradictions–have marked the historical development of humanity.

    If we reject the possibility of revolution, we thereby either deny or (what amounts to the same thing) embrace the limitless atrocity that has hitherto stained our species and brought its very future into question.

  • Wayne Collins

    Revolution means a complete overturn of an exiting order and relationships. Where is it written except in Trotskyist exegesis that this must involve storming of a (winter) Palace? The Russian Revolution can hardly be taken as having established an iron law of revolutionary or pre-revolutionary development. To paraphrase Tom Pain, did the Comintern presume to pass a law to bind the world and all future generations? To presume this is to reflect complete ignorance of the world state and history in 1917?
    Nor has anyone familiar with Marx and Engels (especially) ever contended that ideas do not serve as an immediate spur to movement. Someone should read Dietzgen again. Heralded by Marx as “our philosopher” he clearly stated that ideas are social forces. Even falsehoods are social forces. The essence of thought is the ability to compare, contrast, classify and envision alternative realities. That’s how the concept of revolution became possible.
    Can socialism be brought about without an armed uprising? That can never be ruled out. And the more that socialism becomes a ruling idea in society, the more probable its coming into existence. Engaging in cooperative movements, civil rights movements, struggling for civil and individual liberties, labor unions, equality, are all element of the struggle for socialism – not least because the change the human nature of those engaged in the struggle. Socialists traditionally have participated in all such movements. Lenin, himself, in fact, comprehended this. “What Is To Be Done,” which has virtually nothing to do with a vanguard party, has a lot so say about the need for the revolutionary to penetrate and move through all levels of society – or a culture, if you will.
    Too many people are afraid of being called “opportunists” and too few of being called “sectarians.” Obsessive focusing on the Russian Revolution and its aftermath have virtually destroyed the ability of the left to think, narrowed its horizons severely and forced its retreat to sterile academicism.
    It is articles such as those referenced in this threat that are necessary – and have been since 1924.

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