Revolution: towards a new approach

A stylish Spanish militia member from 1936

The first article I wrote on this Spirit of Contradiction was one on revolution, and more specifically a critique of the radical leftist approach to revolution. In this article I wish to return to this subject and repeat some of my earlier arguments while also bringing up new ones, in essence my goal is to polish my earlier unrefined and isolated ideas and combine them with new insights I have developed since posting them.

My first priority in most of my articles on revolutions was deconstructing and criticising the dominant radical leftist approach to revolutions, in this tradition I will thus begin with a deconstruction of these ideas. The radical leftist approach to revolutions can be described, in a word, as millenarian; it expects one big event to come along and sweep away the rotten capitalist society and institute the glorious future socialist society. This strong focus upon a single moment can often be observed in the language employed by the radical such as the use of the prefix THE before mentions of the word REVOLUTION, such as in the sentences “After the revolution x or y will happen”, “The day the revolution comes x and y will happen” and so on. Another good exercise for any radical leftist that wants to observe this mentality is to search in one of the internet forums dedicated to radical leftists for threads with titles such as “Do you think you will see socialism in your lifetime” or something of that nature, these threads are generally a combination of overly optimistic/desperate comments about how the moment of salvation is drawing nearer and nearer and depressing comments as to how THE revolution will most likely not occur in the writers lifetime.

A second but linked characteristic of the radical leftist approach to revolution is both its simplicity and its voluntarism. In this sense the general analysis of revolutions from radical leftist perspectives comes down to something resembling this schema: capitalism (or in some cases a pre-capitalist mode of production) causes crisis and bad living conditions which gets people to revolt and in the case that the revolting people adhere to the correct political programme and join the right political organisation they succeed (more often than not this is not the case), but more likely they adopt the wrong political views or the revolutions gets betrayed by an opposing political tendency and in both cases the revolution is prematurely destroyed. In this sense there is a weird contradiction in the sense that the radical left and particularly the Marxist left, a group that is often criticised for its determinism and overly strong focus upon material conditions, adopts an essentially voluntarist view of revolution. In essence the objective factors creating a revolution are often brought back to simple creators of some vague form of discontent that although being ascribed some form of importance, is generally relegated to the role of general background. The real importance being ascribed to the revolutionary organisation, the development of revolutions generally just being ascribed to the efforts of a single political organisation or the betrayal of another opposing political organisation.

Another element in this tendency towards simplification of the phenomenon of revolution is that the difficulty and the technicalities of organising a worldwide revolutionary event are widely underestimated. Inherent in the concept of believing in one big revolution, it is assumed that this revolution will be a worldwide event in which the mode of production of the entire world is transformed through this single event. Now of course revolutions are international events, as is evident from preceding historical experiences of revolutionary waves that are international in scope, but if you look at these same revolutionary waves through history generally only one revolution is successful within the entire wave (occasionally a few more) with the failure rate of revolutions within revolutionary waves far exceeding the success rate. And besides that it is simply delusional to assume that with the unequal advance of revolutionary ideas, and social conditions that a single event would simply institute socialism across all these different contexts, besides just being completely unproven historically (see the rate of failure of revolutions within revolutionary waves).

Another element that is often not taken into account by the radical left is working class resistance and passivity towards revolutionary politics, as the radical left spends most of its time revelling in accounts of glorious revolutionary enthusiasm that can be associated with their political ideology. The reality was that in most revolutions, the revolutionaries often had to resort to massive amounts of coercion to achieve mass mobilisation, with the well known example of the Russian revolution known far and wide within the radical left. But even in a context of the Spanish revolution of 1936, which had massive amounts of politicisation of workers with for example in some areas up to 80% of the workers joining organisations such as the CNT-FAI (to my knowledge these are unseen numbers for revolutionary organisations under capitalism but I would be glad to be proven wrong), but even in these exceptional conditions of high politicalisation plentiful accounts exist of stealing in collectivised factories, joining revolutionary organisations simply for the material benefits, complaints by revolutionaries on the passivity of the working class towards their efforts, onto even strikes against the revolutionary regime and the re-implementation of piece work by the CNT-FAI to increase productivity and discourage laziness.

All of this is in addition to the general complexity of transforming of an entire society from a system of wage labour towards one of workers control, while most likely at the same time having to radically alter trade ties thanks to the unequal spread of the revolution across the globe and half a dozen other projects that will be needed to radically alter our current society while most likely being under heavy pressure from counter-revolutionary forces, and this all by political groups that often proclaim they do not want to plan out exactly how a post-capitalist society will look and be organised and satisfy themselves with making generalised remarks.

A response

In contrast to this approach I will try to formulate a response, at least partly based upon recent research by historians, sociologists and politicologists on revolutionary events, research that in general has been completely ignored by the radical left. Now I will not be citing this research here directly as my position is composed of an irregular mix of the different views espoused by recent research on revolutions, nevertheless I will include a small bibliography at the end of this article that should give the reader a quick overview on some recent research being conducted on this subject.

A first idea the radical left needs to abandon is the notion that the transition from capitalism into socialism is going to be an event, one big revolution in which everything changes. Revolutions and, more widely speaking, transitions from one mode of production to another have never functioned in this way, in other words they have been processes rather than events. Therefore the practice of looking at a revolution as a separate entity is a faulty one, as one cannot understand the Cuban revolution of 1959 without considering the war of independence, and the range of coups, revolutions and upheavals, and furthermore the tradition of progressive nationalism borne out of these struggles. In other words it is impossible to understand a revolutionary event without considering the wide political pre-history a certain region has.

Now although this first point is largely an academic one as revolutionary histories tend to leave out most of the events that preceded these revolutions and in that way tend to reinforce the view of the revolution as a sudden, singular event coming out of nowhere instead of an event with a significant pre-history and most importantly an event that fits into wider patterns observed within the history of a certain geographical area. A more healthier view towards revolution could also be inherited from this basic observation in the sense that revolution should be seen as an event that was preceded by numerous political events, small and big, that gradually built up the capacity of the working class to stand up for itself and manage society, in such a way that revolution should not be an event anymore where all of a sudden the working class should manage society but where precedents for this entire shift of power have already been laid down quite some time before.

A second remark would be about the importance of the international situation in the general development of a revolution/revolutionary situation. A key work on this element and about revolutions in general would Theda Skocpol’s “States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China” (no really, if you haven’t read it go read it). For the sake of this point I think it is pretty straightforward to see how an international situation dramatically impacts the chance of a revolution achieving some form of success. The chances of republican Spain during the Spanish civil war were relatively limited if one factors into account its international isolation and the massive support of the fascist countries for the Francoists, whether or not the CNT had attempted to seize complete power (even ignoring the point that this would most likely have caused a three way civil war between the CNT, the popular front and the Francoists). Similarly, the chances of Latin-American revolutions were strongly determined by among other elements the attitude of the United States towards the counter-revolutionary forces. Or of course the impact of the world wars in lighting up revolutionary fires around the world.

Besides being important for shaping the exact conditions in which the revolution occurs, international situations also contain relations of dependence and more importantly international competition between countries. In such a way revolutions often agitate against certain internal structures and international relations of dependence, holding back the country in question compared to other countries and thus creating movements that aim to break through these constraints. Hence the concentration of revolutions in the third world, although this phenomenon is not necessarily limited to the third world. For example the French revolution of 1789, where you have a relatively central country not subject to colonial relations experiencing international setbacks based upon internal contradictions which the revolution broke through.

A third element would be the structure of the ruling elite. As ruling elites are often relatively diverse, thus making certain regimes that base themselves around too unstable a group of elites can be especially vulnerable to a revolution. A simple example of different forms of elites with sometimes relatively different interests and differential access to power would be urban, industrial elites versus rural based, landowning elites, although most of the time different groups of elites still realise their shared interest in the face of mass mobilisation most of the time, either before or after a revolution has succeeded in disposing existing ruling elites. Part of this point would be the position and cohesiveness of the repressive arm of the state, namely the police and especially the army. Significant dislocation within these forces, either in the sense of disorganisation or in some cases even disloyalty can severely increase the chances of a revolution succeeding. On the other hand having an intact, professional army that is loyal to the ruling elites generally means disaster for revolutionaries.

These are only some elements and everyone reading this article will do good by reading up on the articles I will refer to at the end of the article.

The objective side to the subjective forces

Another element for the study of revolution I want to point to here is how the subjective side of revolutions, simply said the actions of the revolutionary actors, is much more complex than what meets the eye. However this element is often reduced to the history and actions of a few revolutionary organisations. In this part of the article I will set out a rough framework for a more rounded approach to the subjective side of revolution.

A first factor would be the importance of culture instead of the approach currently dominant within large parts of the radical left of solely focusing upon an interpretation of ideology as something set in stone and unchangeable, which can only be attached to an organisation and can only be imparted from this organisation towards the masses which are viewed as some sort of undifferentiated unpolitical mas,s before coming into contact with the ideology handed out by the revolutionary organisations. Contrary to this I would like to propose the concept of culture, a more fluid, widely diffused understanding of right and wrong strongly present within certain population groups, and particularly useful in this context within classes. For example when one looks at the rise and fall of leftist organisations within specific or the biographies of working class militants you often see that there tends to be a succession of different leftist organisations within the same countries, regions to even neighbourhoods over time, the same with the political organisation militants attach themselves to. From revolutionary syndicalist to communist, from republican to communist to Guevarist, from revolutionary syndicalist to anarchist to Trotskyist and so on.

This signifies the existence of a sort of deeper seated feeling of identity, of norms and values, of a shared past that allowed these areas and militants to relatively easily move from one organisation to another during their rise and fall. The organisations and their ideologies change, the underlying thinking patterns and mental framework remain the same. This broad, underlying culture is then transferred based upon stories and memories of struggle, music, poems and art in general, the act of collectively remembering say the Paris commune or a grand strike, in essence the creation of a sense of us and them, and the sense that the category of “us” can better manage society than “them” could ever do.

This underlying factor is in turn in my opinion a strong determinant for the development of leftist politics and particularly which kind of ideological base a certain class or group within a class choose to adopt. It is for example no coincidence that, say, the militant black workers of the revolutionary union movements (such as the DRUM, dodge revolutionary union movement) chose to adopt black nationalist ideology and rhetoric as this, among other things, matched their underlying cultural base better. Or how current anti-austerity protesters in Spain will often refer back to the memory of the civil war and the fight against Francoism with republican flags being a familiar site at anti-austerity protests.

On the contrary the non-existence of such an underlying cultural base or at least the corrosion of it can have severely negative effects on any attempt at creating a stable leftist political movement as the absence of a memory of collective action, the absence of a class identity with a shared history, the absence of direct experience in class struggle will leave people separated from any attempts of building a wider leftist movement. And although the absence of this cultural base can be somewhat compensated by the collective experience of deep crises, without it the leftist movements and ideas can just as well fade away after the end/stabilisation of the crises. The creation of this kind of base culture is largely based around struggle, the experience of collectively struggling with a particular group. Now very useful work can and should be done by leftist militants surrounding working class art (music particularly), public history from a leftist perspective…etc. Nevertheless one cannot get around the fact that this entire phenomenon is based in struggle, an element we will see return often in this part.

A second factor is more expansive and based around a diverse range of phenomena and indicators. Simply said this factor constitutes the actual shape and composition of the struggling class and the relation of this compared to the composition and institutions of the opposing class. Again the radical leftist approach to this factor is often inadequate, the working class is viewed as a sort of undifferentiated mass with most attention again diverted to the actions of the revolutionary organisation. And this while the working class (or any other class for that matter) can profoundly change over longer periods of time, and with it its capacity to mobilise itself in relation to other classes.

First and foremost the working class in the Marxist sense is defined by its relation to the means of production and thus its service as wage labourers. Therefore the first characteristic I will explain here is the position of the working class in the production process and the repercussions this has for the mobilising potential of the class. This again includes a wide ranging group of phenomena, among which are: the relative centralisation and/or decentralisation of production, reliance on skilled/unskilled labour, production methods utilised (say the introduction of Fordist production lines), the level of automation implemented, the importance for the entire production of a certain workplace, the capacity of transporting or automating a certain production process…etc. All these factors and more determine the position of the working class and particularly certain key, militant sectors within the working class to achieve a more favourable power balance in comparison to capitalist classes. A few examples would be the struggles of the American CIO in the thirties as they exploited the new systems of production lines to stop the entire production process simply by blocking certain key points, this Fordist production system first being introduced to undermine the position of skilled workers by deskilling labour. Another example would be the relative militancy and organizing capacity of transportation and education workers for the simple reason that both sectors cannot be transported to other countries without transporting the entire economies they service with them, for example longshoremen could block an entire ports transport flow while not allowing capital to transport their functions to less than democratic regimes, like they did with the auto-workers, without transporting the entire country’s’ economy. This in turn then for example lead to the strong automatisation of dock work in an effort to make this very militant section of the working class go away. A similar example would be education workers who can generally also not be outsourced to more repressive countries and could up until now hardly be replaced by automatisation, of course the recent experiments with MOOC’s (massive open online courses) could very well be used to eliminate this relatively militant section of the working class.

After describing the workplace we will follow the working class away from its place of work and into their community, and the corresponding social relation but particularly important the networks the working class develops within these communities and how these influence its capacity to mobilise. In essence this would include all forms of social organisation in which the working class engages outside of that of the workplace, in this part I will therefore provide an incomplete sketch of several of these social structures I think are relevant.

A first one of these structures would be the family, note that I am here not providing a moral judgement on how we should constitute family in a future society, I am just sketching the relevance of it in regards to working class organisation. First we should note that this concept of family for better or worse is still a very important characteristic of working class organisation which thus also extends to periods of working class mobilisation. For example one can observe how a significant number of working class youth in the current crisis in Greece still live with their parents thanks to the current crisis, working class youth who are currently mobilising very militantly, something which would have been much harder for them if they hadn’t been able to rely on this form of solidarity within their family.

Another example would be networks of migration towards western countries being strongly determined by family ties, and extending from this not only the actual process of moving from one place to another but also getting to know the customs of the location they are moving to, getting jobs…etc.

A third example I would like to point to is the function of socialisation, it is a widely studied phenomenon within the radical left as to how the family serves as a first line of socialisation for the future working class for the instilling of discipline and so on, now while not doubting this narrative I would still like to point to how the family can also be the first line of the formation of some form of counter-hegemony. In this sense a significant number of the earliest experiences of leftist militants go back to family ties, of mothers, father, uncles and aunts telling stories of workers struggles, of them discussing politics even in the most crude way (say swearing at some politician), of them singing leftist songs…etc. Note how this point of family structures also relates to my earlier point on the existence of a working class culture, the family being one of the places where it would be reproduced.

For these reasons the exact family structures present in a certain society can be of importance to the capacity of the working class to mobilise, potential indicators for this would be the importance of the nuclear family compared to the extended family, different forms of occupation within a family (say one part of the family being employed in factories while the other part are still peasants, a condition that is very common in China at the moment), strength of family ties…etc. Again I would like to note that I am not attaching any moral judgement to the concept of the family here, nor do I say anything about whether or not the family should exist in a future society, I am just pointing to its importance as a form of social organisation within the current working class.

Although the potential importance of family structures in the social organization of the current working class is relatively high, it is a form of organisation in which it is relatively hard, and I also think quite nonsensical, to attempt an intervention within it by the radical left. On the other hand the myriad of organisations that can be described by the term ‘civil society’ can provide a better opportunity to do this. Now of course pretty much every radical leftist has heard about the massive amount of associations build by the grand workers organisations in their heydays, and I am not going to deny that these organisations which encompassed significant parts of society contributed heavily towards the capacity of the working class to mobilise, nevertheless I would want to argue for a slightly different position than the usual ‘lets build ourselves a new network of community organisations’ rhetoric that usually accompanies this subject within the radical left.

This position would first need to be based upon the simple observation that the current civil society in most western countries is on the one hand, massive and reaches deep into the social structure of the societies in question. A second less obvious and more worrying observation is that the state and to a lesser extent capital has managed to significantly tie itself to this civil society. You can see this in how the organisations that encompass this civil society almost always receive government subsidies (in itself not necessarily worrying) and more importantly generally establish close ties between at least the top layers of these organisations and the local politicians and power holders of political parties active in town level politics, in some cases even establishing some patronage-eque relationships. Besides this we see a significant element of corporate sponsorship aimed at civil society up unto the point where most organisations are sponsored by at least one big corporation. One can thus say that compared to earlier times during the heyday of radical leftist civil society, today the state and capital have established a much more thorough control over the civil society of at least western countries.

An element which will most likely thoroughly impact the capacity for the creation of a leftist civil society, as this form of civil society will be able to count on a significantly lower amount of public funding and logically speaking no corporate sponsorship. Nevertheless I think that the creation and deepening of popular organisations of struggle such as the public meetings, collective solidarity initiatives, workers clubs, neighbourhood associations…etc. Many of which are are pioneered at the moment in places such as Greece and Spain provide a significant impulse to the capacity of the working class to associate and mobilise, and a significant future form of organising for the radical left should be preparing their existence in countries that have not yet reached significant enough levels of struggle, and deepen and increase their implantation within their respective communities so that their existence can be assured even during lower levels of struggle.

A last brief point I want to make here is the possibility of having conflict between different cultural groups within the working class. Basically thanks to a range of processes such as mass migration, differential access to wealth based on racism, gentrification…etc. you have in the last 50-something years seen the rise of a more diverse and more divided working class, certainly if you combine cultural fault-lines with economic differentiations within the working class itself (distinctions between blue-collar and white-collar workers for example). Therefore you currently have in many differentiations within communities between workers of different cultural backgrounds (say Turkish versus German) but also based upon differential economic categories (say the distinction between better earning and worse earning workers). Now although these distinctions indeed have been overstated by certain political groups in their attempts to foster disunity, there has been a tendency for the working class in Europe to become more heterogeneous compared to the earlier times of the grand worker parties.

Also what I am arguing here is not that this is something new that will require the radical left to completely turn around its politics (an often stated demand is the dropping of the focus on the working class because it would supposedly not exist any more), as there are plenty of examples of these sorts of distinctions existing in the first part of the 19th century for example in the US or in South Africa with class based politics still achieving some successes. Nevertheless within the current radical left an approach that will bridge these distinctions will still be needed that will need to be borne out of collective organisation and struggle in ways that will bridge these gaps. And not in the way current political parties wish to accomplish this goal, which basically entails saying “racism is bad mkay” and treating certain groups as completely separate from the working class in a sort of checklist of target audiences “workers? check!, women? check!, muslims? check!”. In this sense separating all these struggles and detaching them from working class struggles will not dissolve dividing lines within the working class and secondly, all of the people the radical left wants to reach within these are these groups, though they are represented as separate, are actually also working class. In this sense I feel little interest in defending the rights of say a business owner that lowers wages, fires people and increases production to such levels that suicides in his factory reach peak levels simply because he is gay and/or muslim. Now that doesn’t mean that the struggles of say muslim or gay working class people do not have their own peculiarities that should be catered for but they should still be conceptualised as working class struggles instead of struggles that are detached from one’s position within the production process.

To return back to the subject of the social organisation of the working class, it is thus necessary to conceptualise this subject as the total of all social networks and forms of organisation employed by the class to mobilise itself, something which can include family structure, the structure of civil society, fault lines running through the working class…etc. And this data then in turn needs to be added to the data already known on the organisation of the production process and particularly the power position of the working class in this process and the deeper cultural identity that is present within the working class. Only then can we start speaking about political parties and formal ideologies, a subject which according to traditional radical leftist analysis has a monopoly in providing the subjective factors of social change. In contrast what I have shown here is an approach which rejects this hugely one sided and heavily narcissistic method of understanding working class mobilisation (“the organisation that I claim as my political ancestry was responsible for event x in working class history”), in contrast we should look at the deeper structures present within the working class that allow for its mobilisation and try to include them into at least our historical understanding of working class mobilisations and if possible engage with them to amplify their capacity to fulfil their role of facilitators of collective action.

In this sense political parties and formal ideologies only provide the tip of the iceberg for understanding working class mobilisation, and although it is still a factor in facilitating it it cannot be understood as the only one. Which goes pretty much counter to the approach of many currents within the radical left which view the current period of class retreat as simply one where some political parties stopped professing a certain radical enough programme and that what we need is just for some new party to arise which will make clear to the working class how much in their interest their ideology is to them after which we will see the glorious return of the workers parties. This approach while reducing leftist militants to admen who need to sell a certain product to the passive masses while totally ignoring all the previously named structural pre-conditions to working class mobilization, as if the creation of a new radical leftist political current will just entail popping a new party apparatus on top of the (perceived as) confused working class.

Theda Skocpol, States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1979.
John Foran, “Theories of Revolution Revisited: Toward a Fourth Generation?”, Sociological Theory, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1993, p. 1-20.
John Foran, “A Theory of Third World Social Revolutions: Iran, Nicaragua, and El Salvador Compared”, critical sociology, Vol. 19, No. 2, 1992, p.3-27.

About yeksmesh

Yeksmesh has quite an eclectic range of political influences, it is therefore pretty much certain that he will be put against the wall for petty-bourgeoisie infantile deviationist intransigence after the revolution has come.
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