For a long time, the very idea of mass-struggle politics was almost invariably considered anathema in this country. The United States is just too conservative, we were (and still are) told both by the active defenders of the status quo and those who passively accept it out of resignation. “American exceptionalism” – the concept that the U.S. is magically different, exempt from the laws of historical and social change (if those laws are admitted to exist at all) – was the flame retardant poured on even the flicker of rebellion in the mind. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the corpse of Stalinism was dragged out by representatives and ideologues of Capital everywhere to “prove” that there is no alternative to the present order, that the best we can do is a little tinkering here and there – if that. Mainstream political discourse narrowed to choices between the Ronald Reagans and Bill Clintons of the world.
What a difference twenty years can make! In the wake of the 2008 world recession, public confidence in the system was shaken on a mass scale. Discussions began about ‘capitalism’, itself a recognition that the present order is but one economic system among many possible permutations. Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, despite their limitations and contradictions, put the concept of far-reaching economic and political change back on the agenda; the era we live in is one in which millions of people are groping for answers to problems they’re increasingly recognizing as deep-rooted and systemic. If the answer to these problems is “revolution”, we have to consider what that means and whether it can be done.
The word itself suffers a lot of abuse, where in the hands of pundits and advertising executives it’s used to mean anything from “like, freeing your mind, man” to a slightly slimmer smartphone. For Marxists though, we use ‘revolution’ in a very specific way. A social revolution occurs when one ruling class is deposed and replaced with another, bringing with it a different form of government and – crucially – a different economic system. Capitalism itself was born on the crest of a revolutionary tide, with the Americans in 1776 and the French in 1789 overthrowing the feudal aristocracy to lay the foundations for the rule of the modern capitalist class. In both cases, old property forms had to be done away with. Serfdom and the lords’ landed estates gave way to wage labor and private ownership of the means of production. The new economic conditions under the revolutionary bourgeoisie lead to tremendous development of the productive forces – alongside the slave trade, colonial conquest and naked exploitation of the laboring masses. The new political forms – namely, democracy – developed with the capitalist economy were a genuine advance over feudal absolutism but, since the capitalist class is a small minority of the population, it was still a case of ‘democracy for the few, dictatorship for the many.’
Today, the positive aspects of capitalist development – namely, getting the world’s productive forces up to a level inconceivable in earlier societies – has reached its limits. The forces of production are actually hindered now by the relations of production, ie; private ownership producing for private profit. Now a decaying system, capitalism bears the rotten fruits of war, privation and oppression. But it also creates its own gravediggers: the proletariat, the modern working class.
Divide et impera
Probably the most common objection to the idea of revolution in the United States, tied up with myths of exceptionalism, is that Americans are fundamentally unfit to make it. This comes in many forms: American workers are said to be either too backward, too apathetic or too caught up in “false consciousness” to recognize and fight for their own interests. Xbox and Netflix are said to rule our lives, not visions of social change. Futile dreams of ‘making it big’ and becoming rich preclude any chance of getting organized to fight the rich.
There is a hint of truth in this, if we look only at surface appearances and take them for the whole picture. Suffering people who don’t see a way out of their present situation may seek the shelter of fundamentalist religion or aspirations toward becoming “middle class” as a way out. Since the ruling class is a small minority of the population, it’s also necessary to use the time-honored tactics of “divide et impera” (divide and rule) favored by tyrants throughout the ages. In our society, this is done by pitting workers of different races, national origins, ages and genders against each other. You’re less likely to unionize your workplace or demand a public jobs program if you see Hispanic immigrants, rather than the billionaires, as the cause of your economic woes. All forms of oppression play a similar role in perpetuating the current order.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Every uptick in the class struggle exposes the idea that ordinary people are too lazy or bigoted to resist for the lie that it is. We see this now with the rebellions against police violence and the steadily-growing movement of poverty-wage workers in retail and fast food, just to name a few examples. We’ve also seen it, to an even greater extent, in the not-too-distant past with the mass movements for civil rights, the labor revolt of the 1930s, and the powerful socialist and communist parties of the 20th century. We concede that the numbers of people, both in the U.S. and globally, who are actively resisting exploitation and oppression (in one form or another), don’t constitute the majority, and that there is still a tremendous amount of reactionary sentiment within the working class itself. But how could it be otherwise? The ruling ideas of every society are the ideas of the ruling class, the class which controls the major media and the official politics. But every mass movement in history, whether culminating in reform or revolution, began as a besieged minority amidst a hostile sea.
“We Are Many, They Are Few”
What we’re seeing right now, as with Occupy and the 2011 labor struggle in Wisconsin, is mostly spontaneous outbursts against this or that aspect of the capitalist system. Notwithstanding the links that are beginning to forge between different movements, they’re still largely sectional and without long-term strategy, radical or otherwise. But the capitalists and their state are highly organized and above all very much conscious of their own role and what they need to do to defend it.
In the long run, what makes a successful revolution possible is the prior existence of a mass revolutionary party-movement. The Red Party argues that now is the time to lay the groundwork for this. Forging a revolutionary socialist party out of the existing patchwork of far-left organizations won’t immediately result in a mass force that will overthrow capitalism next Tuesday, but it’s the only thing that can break the current cycle of explosion, then repression / co-optation and demoralization we find ourselves stuck in.
This idea isn’t a recent invention on our part. As we’ve explained in the pages of The Red Vine, communists (or socialists or Social-Democrats, depending on the time) have historically made themselves into mass forces by organizing in a myriad of ways all tied to the core project of working class self-liberation. Trade unions, cooperatives, mutual aid societies, et cetera were built not just for their own sake but as schools of solidarity where ordinary people got a sense of their strength as a class rather than as atomized individuals or passive subjects of whatever top-down populism happened to be the flavor of the month.
Take, for example, the Unemployed Councils set up by the Communist Party USA in the 1930s. Formed as a response to mass unemployment, which neither the private sector nor the government would address (sound familiar?), the Councils organized sizable (and often successful) demonstrations calling for public jobs programs or unemployment relief. But they also engaged in direct action to block evictions and raised money and supplies for each other to help the worst-off among them make it through lean times. In the Bronx, communists founded “The Coops”, a cooperative housing project where tenants democratically controlled their own living conditions. The Coops were the site of fierce political debate and were a center of solidarity. On one occasion, co-op members physically blocked the eviction of tenants in the building next door. Amid racist hysteria, The Coops gave its support to black struggles and became the first integrated housing in the area.
Another illustration of this approach was known as the Red Falcons, sponsored by the Socialist Party alongside its sister organizations, the Socialist Sunday Schools. Participatory education and values of cooperation appealed to many parents who otherwise would have sent their children to the Boy / Girl Scouts or to church Sunday schools. These examples can be repeated at length, particularly in Europe where the workers’ movement was better established than in America. Anything from economic and farmer coops to mass sports
You didn’t have to be a committed communist to be a part of any of these movement organizations. But just by existing, they were spaces in which immediate, day-to-day struggles coexisted alongside a strategic conception of fighting for a freer, more democratic society – socialism. Like any labor union worth its salt, they taught workers the basic truth that “we are many, they are few.” Even some of the more backward layers were drawn in. These organizations were organically tied to parties that, whatever their faults, were programmatically committed to socialism and could function as a vehicle through which the most far-seeing and dedicated members of the working class could come together and generalize their experiences. Whether a given struggle ended in victory or defeat, its lessons could be absorbed for next time.
When we build such a party-movement again, the question of revolution won’t seem so impossible anymore.