Saturday, March 24, 2012

A Communism that is power to the people

The following are notes developed for Brer Rabbit’s RED Hot Summer Study Group (a project of the Voice Collective in Louisiana).
Originally posted to, June 15, 2011

Communist vision: With agency and mass politics at the center

By Brer Fox

Early on in our work as an actual collective there was a meeting between Louisiana folk gathered around the Kasama Project and a number of local anarchists. The anarchists were tasked with leading this particular discussion and they initiated an introductory exercise: Everyone had to say what they fear most.
The various revelations were thought-provoking, but there was one response that resonated with me profoundly. A charming anarchist organizer, five years my senior, said:
“What really terrifies me is the thought that most people only get to feel like real, creative subjects for fleeting moments in their lives, instead of every day. This makes me incredibly sad.”
Over the past few months this remark has haunted me—acting as a somber lei motif running through the varied, sometimes frenzied and depressing moments of my life (including work and interpersonal relations); and on the other hand it has had a very encouraging effect. I have been inspired.

It has prompted me to think more deeply about regrouping for and reconceiving the communist movement for a real revolutionary transformation of society. It has made me look more closely at the features of existing society while asking with a somewhat new emphasis what—fundamentally—is communist revolution supposed to look like, and what sort of results are we going for?

What I am going to say here is by necessity basic (I don’t have exact prescriptions of what we need to do), and shouldn’t be surprising. Nevertheless I think that it is something worth saying, and rather often for that matter, considering the general weakness of the global Left after decades of setbacks and which exists as scattered fragments and dead-ends, with flowers of hope jutting up here and there. It is important for forging a revolutionary politics that can connect with real people’s lives here in our own time.

My basic points are as follows:

1) Existing society radically limits the agency of the vast majority of people, giving them little control over the basic conditions of their lives. They are systematically prevented from re-constituting their society, that is, building the world anew as the current set-up becomes more and more odious.

2) At its very heart, communist revolution must be about overturning this state of affairs, that is, empowering the people in their masses to take control of their own lives by re-constituting society on a fundamentally new basis (and this is only possible with communist revolution).

3) Overall, communist revolutions that have resulted in the establishment of socialist state power have not brought about such an empowering of the masses in sustained ways, but we must study the historical sequences in which there have been important struggles over the soul of socialism, in the form of the acute development of the basic contradiction between the bureaucratic-authoritarian tendencies and the genuinely liberatory dimension of 20th century socialism as it developed within the context of the party-state (the Chinese Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution is the highest or most developed example in the pages of socialist history).

4) Many existing socialist and communist organizations still do not adequately deal with the question of mass agency, and do not emphasize it as the core of the revolutionary vision.

5) In this period of reconception and regroupment, there should be theoretical and organizational struggle to re-emphasize this part of the revolutionary vision and deepen it. Let’s put it at the center. Let’s make it inform all our communist preparations and let’s exude this yearning and vision in our interactions with others. As Matthew says in the Gospels, don’t light a candle and hide it under a bushel.

Where we are right now

Right now we are in a unique position to reconceive and rebuild the communist movement worldwide. There are several features of the current period that should be grasped in this regard.

1) For several decades now the world has experienced a revolutionary low tide. We are still only just beginning to emerge from this trough, though it is not completely clear whether we are in for another dip or whether things are going to pick back up in a huge way. Nevertheless, this does mean that we have an opportunity for deep reflection and thinking. For the most part around the world, we are not utterly occupied with raging street battles and so on, and are not forced deep underground. We have some time for things like study groups and reading circles, as well as more direct forms of investigation connected with on-the-ground organizing.

2) We know that most existing strategies aren’t yielding much in terms of results, though we shouldn’t be overly voluntaristic here and underestimate the conjunctural nature of mass upsurges (the Russian revolution was possible in part because of WWI, the Chinese revolution overlapped with the sequence of the Second World War, etc.)

3) We have a hell of a lot of historical experience of revolution to draw from—more than any previous generation of revolutionaries. And we have an incredible ability to access this information and discuss it. We can study everything from the Paris Commune to current uprisings in the Middle East. Lenin didn’t have the benefit of knowing the history of the USSR or what would happen in Vietnam during the 50s, 60s and 70s. We do.

4) Even though we have been in a lull period for some time now, that is undoubtedly changing. Major national polls are showing that the up-and-coming generation in the U.S. is increasingly critical of capitalism and are more open to alternatives. Communist, socialist and radical organizations across the country are experiencing growth (though, unfortunately, not as dramatically as the far Right). This slow but exciting trend has even been discussed recently in the New York Times, which is not exactly known for its detailed coverage of the radical Left. [link] Then there is Wisconsin. There is the Middle East and North Africa. There is India and Nepal. There is Greece and Spain.

I claim that for communists this is a time to ask big questions about the communist project. The opportunity is ours. Let’s dare to be really bold and uncompromisingly radical. What will be the leading visions of our movement?

Part of this involves rethinking the communist movement’s relationship to the question of mass agency. On one extreme, there are groups and tendencies out there which have very rigid—though often nice-sounding—conceptions of what socialist democracy should look like; some of these one-sidedly reject the experiences of actually-existing attempts at socialism, as though these were monolithically bureaucratic, technocratic and authoritarian historical sequences without a hint of liberation and mass participation.
But to the other extreme, there are far too many groups and tendencies out there which seem to have jettisoned any vision of socialism and communism that puts human liberation—real empowerment—at the center. Is that really too idealistic?

Fundamentally, are we for liberation, or not?

This jettisoning is, in my view, one of the most problematic developments that we encounter in the existing communist landscape, and these groups, like others, are growing and are getting a hearing among some segments of the people. If some who openly identify themselves as communists declare that the Kim Jong-il’s Korea is a vibrant example of socialism, why would masses of people want to join our movement, and what will our movement be about? Why would large numbers of people be moved to overthrow the shitty conditions of U.S. and other societies for the type of system that they have built in the DPRK? In short why would people—and why should people—trade old oppressions for new ones?

Marx and Engel’s vision in the German Ideology

In our attempt to think agency afresh, it is important to revisit the ways that communists have dealt with this problematic in the past. Marx and Engels discuss agency at length in part one of the German Ideology, for example, in a way which I find particularly exciting. I realize that the “early Marx” is not regarded highly in some quarters, but there is a core here whose spirit—I believe—should infuse our communist movement. We should exude the aspiration that people—consciously, collectively, can be in control of the basic conditions of their lives and of the direction that their society is taking.

In the German Ideology, Marx and Engels say that in historical society so far the social order confronts people as something foreign and fundamentally out of their control. Even though human beings (especially past generations) have created this order, it confronts us as a godlike power to which we are ever subjugated. We are produced as subjects by institutions that are bigger than us and give us little room to breathe. None of us chose class society. None of us chose racial, gender and sexual oppression, but we are trapped in them like someone who has wandered into an expanse of thorns and becomes more entangled the more s/he tries to free herself. Or more accurately, it is like being born into a world of briars, and having to survive in what little spaces are available for movement, grasping what we can find here and there. In our desperation, we have to be cruel and cunning to maneuver in such a world. We are not like rabbits who can glide through the thorns with ease, or like a bird in the air or a fish in the water.

Marx and Engels say,
“This fixation of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now.” (53)
They go on:
“The social power, i.e. the multiplied productive force, which arises through the co-operation of different individuals, since their co-operation is not voluntary but has come about naturally, not as their own united power, but as an alien force existing outside them, of the origin and goal of which they are ignorant, which they thus cannot control, which on the contrary passes through a peculiar series of phases and stages independent of the will and the action of man, nay, even being the prime governor of these.” (54)
This is how Marx and Engels characterize previous and existing historical society. It is nothing short of a nightmare vision of the world in which we live, and I think that the accuracy of such a description will ring true to the people we encounter as we work to build a new revolutionary movement. As we have discussed over and over again, it certainly rings true for those of us in this study group.

To use my own experiences as an example, when I look back at the institutions that I have been involved in throughout my life, lack of agency is a primary feature that runs through it all. I attended public high school in a small Louisiana town with a black population over 60 percent and a poverty level well above the national average.

The school felt more like a prison, with bland uniforms, high fences and police officers always on duty to make sure that people didn’t step out of line. A culture of ultra-conformity pervaded all spheres. There was nothing resembling a diversity of classes to choose from and education was utterly non-participatory. Students had no say in shaping the curriculum and were in fact treated like blank receptacles into which expert knowledge was to be deposited. Students were tracked early on for either university education or whatever else was available—probably prison or minimum wage jobs (Louisiana has the highest rate of incarceration in the entire U.S., making the “school to prison pipeline” analysis especially pertinent here).
When I went to a local state university the situation wasn’t altogether different. The ubiquity of the police was even greater—the university, of course, had its own police station, and on one occasion I found myself laying against the hood of one of their cars as they felt up my junk just for walking in a park at night. That’s pretty typical, and not the worst example of police abuse. But it is amazing how we have learned to take such outright authoritarianism for granted. I guess that twelve years of primary education and authoritarian home life prepare us pretty well for the “real world.”

At the university a greater diversity of courses were offered, but overall, students were not real participants in shaping their education. With occasional exceptions, especially in graduate programs, students did not have much say in shaping their curricula, and were instead—much like in high school—treated as blank slates to be deposited with information as they were processed through this highly-bureaucratic, late-capitalist institution. Overall, it was an education that failed to connect with real people’s lives in transformative ways. My most positive experiences within the university system centered around student organizing and discussion with professors and instructors in the interstices of the educational system. These were examples of us going very much against the grain, and were not part of the institution’s normal functioning.

Then the current economic recession set in and Governor Bobby Jindal’s state government started pushing through devastating austerity measures. There were severe, and ongoing, cuts in education and healthcare. University students from around the state formed anti-budget cuts groups on their own campuses, came together in a coalition, made headline news rallying at the state capital. Faculty at various schools threw their support behind the students’ initiatives. Unions and primary educators became involved.
And what was the result?

The budget cuts continued. Departments were closed down. Professors and staff were fired. Funds dried up. Commercials appeared on the state universities’ radio stations featuring university system leaders delivering an eerily-fascist, or even perversely religious, message. They literally said that everyone who was concerned about the budget cuts needed “to have faith in their leaders” and that everyone would have to pull together during some tough times, and that the system would certainly come out better than ever and would be more efficient. That was such a relief! It’s wonderful to see American democracy in action.
There was no response to the movement from the state government’s various apparatuses—no engagement, no dialogue. It was clear that students, faculty, staff and concerned citizens had no real voice in what was happening. Cuts were going to continue. Well, that’s not entirely true. Just before the first (and largest) rally at the capitol, Louisiana’s number one newspaper, the Advocate, ran an article featuring state police Colonel Mike Edmonson. He said that there would be a large police presence at the capitol in case “anarchist fringe groups” decided to “cause some problems,” in which case they were “going to act pretty quickly.” He went on to say, “We’ll have enough [security] to control the crowd. But I don’t want to make it look like a police state.” Perhaps look is the operative word here. To Colonel Edmonson’s and the state police’s credit, this is more engagement than the student movement got from the other branches of state government, and about equal to the engagement of the university system bureaucracy (remember the fascist radio announcements).
My experiences in the workforce have been about as inspiring. I’ll describe them, at the risk of belaboring my point even more. In the late neoliberal U.S. economy, it is becoming increasingly clear that the university is not the ladder of social mobility that it was for some time. Most college graduates I know are not working in their fields, and in fact most are either chronically unemployed, or are underemployed, working part-time, low-wage jobs.

My first job prospect when I departed the university setting was working with seniors at a health unit in a very rural, majority black parish. It’s the sort of place where there just aren’t any jobs. Nevertheless, it looked like they were going to be able to hire me at the health unit. I started working there as a volunteer and I absolutely loved it. It was something that I could see myself doing for years, and I bonded deeply with those who came there for help. I stayed on for a while as a volunteer, while it became more and more apparent that I was not going to be hired. The hospital system was a target of budget cuts and there was nothing that could be done. They were cutting back, not expanding. This experience really made me feel my lack of agency.

Then I spent time working at a family-owned rural grocery store that had been around since the late 1930s. In fact it was owned by members of my own extended family, started by second-generation Sicilian immigrants who, like others of their generation, were able to rise from poverty by using a reserve of family members as a ready labor force, ultimately going from non-Whites to becoming part of the White petty-bourgeois establishment during the post-war years when social mobility was dramatically more attainable for certain sectors of the population.

I am not idealizing the petty-bourgeoisie, but we live in a capitalist system, and it is important to recognize the role that they have played in the culture and life of this country. In small towns and rural areas, especially, the appearance and disappearance of a little enterprise is no small thing. The petty-bourgeoisie have been movers behind local festivals, for example, which offer some break from the dreariness of everyday life under capitalism. They provide spaces for people to interact with others, so forth and so on.

By the time I started working in the store after several years of being a student worker it was on its last legs. In just over a year the business withered to an unsustainable level. Around a month ago the store closed for good. The family has sold off a few beef cattle and is ransacking the old service station that used to be connected to the store for scrap metal. (Just yesterday, the station’s roof collapsed, resulting in yet another financial liability.) This is the more genteel version of a more general phenomenon around these parts. Even further down in the food chain, rag-tag bands of teenage boys are known to be stealing the doors off people’s house trailers and so on, to get the copper inside.

This is obviously not a good situation for me, but it’s also pretty depressing to see the larger social fall-out amid an overall scene of grinding rural poverty. For one thing, people lost jobs, and some of those people had worked for this business all their lives. There aren’t many jobs out there to replace the ones lost, and there is, in fact, a world of difference between petty-bourgeois paternalistic exploitation and the kinds of exploitation one would experience working for Wal-Mart. Exploitation is exploitation, but a worker is in a different situation when their boss knows all their kids’ names, and will personally loan them money, for example, rather than being just another face in a low-wage workplace with an insanely-high turnover rate.
On top of that, the store’s primary customers at this point were older people who had been shopping there all their lives, and for whom the store was a principle venue of social interaction (picture the cultural desert of a town that has a prison but not a coffee shop, especially for people who can’t get around well) and very local low income people, many of whom do not have access to a motor vehicle. Lots of these folk shopped at the store because it was relatively easy to get to on foot. In an environment characterized by horrendously inconvenient and unsustainable rural sprawl, having such a place to shop was very important for these people. Now they are forced to walk or bike much longer distances to get the things they need in a humid subtropical climate where summer temperatures hover around 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Today the heat index was 114. This is what the ongoing process of advanced monopolization looks like; it is an irreversible feature of capitalism and it speeds up during economic crises. In this immediate local case, the appearance of Wal-Mart on the scene is predominantly to blame.

I could certainly go on about the deleterious consequences of the store’s closing (and am actually inclined to do so) but let’s allow this to suffice: A principle theme of the process I just described—like the others—is that, fundamentally, the ordinary people involved in the organization in question, either as member-participants or as community affected, had no say in the changes that were occurring. For all intents and purposes they were subject to the machinations of largely-invisible elites and titanic economic forces seemingly beyond anybody’s control. This is everyday life for most people.

Again, in the German Ideology, Marx and Engels point out the strangeness of such a situation, where the human-made world seems to act upon us like an alien power. Using the example of trade, they say:
“…how does it happen that trade, which after all is nothing more than the exchange of products of various individuals and countries, rules the whole world through the relation of supply and demand—a relation which, as an English economist says, hovers over the earth like the fate of the ancients, and with invisible hand allots fortune and misfortune to men, sets up empires and overthrows empires, causes nations to rise and to disappear…” (54-55)
When the whole of society is structured around production for private accumulation, then our world is continually swept up by forces seemingly out of people’s control. But powerlessness to shape human reality is most acute for the economically exploited and oppressed majority, who are continually the victims of all kinds of horrors, and who are systematically excluded from institutional arenas in which they could shape the course of change.

A communist vision for the 21st century needs to ground itself in deep awareness of this fact:
That powerless is a principle feature of life for the vast majority of people in capitalist society, and powerlessness takes a multitude of forms depending upon where people are geographically, where exactly they fit in the economic order, and how their lives are penetrated by the many systems of oppression, the list of which we are now so used to reciting like an incantation, perhaps in hopes that we will chance upon a magical combination of words and we will all rise up to cast these chains into the flaming rubbish heap of history. Such is the level of our desperation.

Secondly, a communist vision for the 21st century needs to ground itself in a deep commitment to reversing this state of affairs. We need to affirm that the socialist revolution we’re working towards will put the masses of people in control of society. Again, in the German Ideology, Marx and Engels complement this ugly assessment of actually-existing society with their conception of communist society:
“…with the abolition of the basis of private property, with the communistic regulation of production (and, implicit in this, the destruction of the alien relation between men and what they themselves produce), the power of the relation of supply and demand is dissolved into nothing, and men get exchange, production, the mode of their mutual relation, under their own control again.” [Italics added] (55)
When we speak of communism amongst ourselves and all the people we encounter, these guiding ideals should never be far from the surface.

The Maoist Rupture: Putting mass politics in command

The project for a new society that Marx and Engels elucidate in the German Ideology is unequivocally radical, and hinges on profound commitment to increasing human agency on a mass scale. This has, overall, been the intention driving the communist movement across the world. But as we are reconceiving and building up the rudiments of new revolutionary forces, let’s also be unequivocal and sober in our assessment of how we got where we are today.

We must not leave critique up to anti-communists on the Left and Right. We must accept that despite incredible achievements in the social, political, military, economic and cultural spheres, 20th century socialist regimes—overall—were not effective at creating conditions for mass agency. There are many reasons for this, including factors internal to the movements themselves and because of imperialist interference. Some revolutions started out promisingly (Russia, China) and descended into authoritarian technocracy and ultimately capitalist restoration, while other regimes were imposed from outside (e.g., the socialist regimes in Eastern Europe) and had no mass basis to begin with (which is not to say that there weren’t homegrown, even vibrant, communist movements in these places).

By the time the Chinese revolution was seriously underway, the first socialist state power—the USSR—was already far down the road of authoritarian bureaucratism. It had achieved much, and there were subordinated elements of mass agency in the society, but its overall trajectory was not in the direction of liberation.

Mao and those of similar mind in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) were aware of the problem of bureaucratization early on in the course of the Chinese Revolution. At the end of the Long March (a major retreat of the Chinese communists from their rural base area on the northwest side of the Jinggangshan mountains) the CCP set about creating a new base area in the backwater of Yan’an. The communist movement was in shambles and they were forced to build it from the ground up. This base area existed from the mid 1930s until the late 1940s. As they created a vibrant revolutionary state and society in miniature, the issue of bureaucratization came to the fore, as it would repeatedly for the duration of the revolutionary period in China. In his seminal 1940 essay, On New Democracy, Mao did not hesitate to address the increasingly bureaucratic nature of the Party’s work. He identified bureaucracy as a killer of revolution.
In Maoist theory, it is made clear that the real object of socialist development is the actual transformation of social relations. Developing forces of production is not an end in itself. As historian Rebecca E. Karl put it in her 2010 biography of Mao,
"For Mao, the whole point of the revolution was the practical one of creating the conditions for the masses to transform their own lives.” (118)
 The history of the Chinese revolution is an amazing one, and it is important to note the vast and exemplary extent to which the revolution was successful in marshalling the participation and creativity of the masses. Besides the theoretical orientation of the Maoists in the Chinese communist movement, a principle factor in the mass-based character of many revolutionary sequences is the concrete way in which the revolution developed. The Chinese revolution was not a brief insurrection leading to a coup, but rather a multi-decade process in which the communist movement grew among the people (the majority of whom were peasants), transforming actual relations and consciousness on a large scale before the CCP took state power in 1949.
Nevertheless, by the mid-1960s the CCP was well on its way to becoming as rigid as its Soviet counterpart. Right-wing tendencies among the Party bureaucracy and elites were leading the way. Proponents of this road were emphasizing stability, order, authority and economic development as opposed to fundamental social transformation. (It is partly understandable given that China was emerging from disasters of the Great Leap Forward period, but the non-revolutionary trajectory was discernable to the most radical revolutionary leaders.)

The Maoists developed a powerful analysis through which they sought to show how class struggle continued under socialism, the transition period between capitalist and communist society. They came to believe that, in regard to socialism (as it was developing within the context of the party-state), the party bureaucracy itself was the breeding ground of a new elite, a proto-capitalist class who would thwart the aims of revolution and restore capitalism. (Though these capitalist restorationist tendencies were not seen as necessarily conscious or part of a vast counter-revolutionary conspiracy, as line differences were conceived in Stalin’s USSR.)
The Maoists, of course, turned out to be right. In post-Mao China, the restoration of capitalism proceeded at a rapid, though controlled pace, showing simultaneously that, being a transitional phase combining elements of both capitalism and communism, socialism’s revolutionary gains can be reversed; and that, despite what seemed so clear in the pro-capitalist euphoria that followed the collapse of nearly all of the socialist regimes, democracy is not the natural shell of capitalist economy.

The struggle of the Maoists against the bureaucratic rightists in the CCP reached its apex with the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, an amazingly complex and contradictory historical sequence which lasted from 1966-1976 (the year of Mao’s death) based on one periodization, though the main phase was from 1966-1969. On the one hand the Cultural Revolution was an elite power struggle among top Party leaders who were fighting over the course that Chinese economic, political and cultural development would take. But it quickly became a mass movement of students and workers—and this was the Maoist leaders’ intentions. For an all too brief flowering, the people in their millions were struggling over political theory, forming a dizzying array of independent student and worker organizations, criticizing Party bureaucracy and exercising power to fundamentally change the direction of Chinese society. They were taking revolution into their own hands. They were becoming political agents in extraordinary ways that dramatically highlight the hollowness of claims about democracy made by capitalist and actually-existing socialist regimes then and now.
It is difficult to overstate the degree to which the Cultural Revolution constituted a rupture with the hegemonic vision of socialism that had reigned for so long. Even more dramatically than their counterparts in the West, the revolutionaries of 1960s China were reviving the struggle over the heart of socialism and the communist project—a struggle that had been repressed for far too long.

In order to gain from these experiences so that we might reinvigorate the communist movement today (and put mass agency at the center) I think that we must appreciate the Cultural Revolution’s full weight and world historic import. I am in agreement with Alain Badiou’s assessment in The Communist Hypothesis when he argues that the fact of the Cultural Revolution indicates the effective end as a viable emancipatory strategy of the previous phase of socialist revolution embodied in the form of the party-state. (In Badiou’s terms the party-state strategy is saturated, that is, filled to its limit, exhausted, spent. It belongs to a previous historical sequence and not to a future one.)

For the most part the actors in the Cultural Revolution did not envision themselves as attempting to overthrow the party-state order, but rather as attempting to revive the Party and put it on a revolutionary footing once again. But the actuality of the Cultural Revolution, as Badiou explains—and as I said towards the beginning this article—represents the highest development anywhere of the contradiction between the genuinely emancipatory dimension of 20th century socialist revolution and the form of the party-state. The formation of independent revolutionary organizations, and non-party-based administrative apparatuses (e.g. the Shanghai Commune) constitute a tentative going-beyond what was possible or even thinkable in the previous socialist hegemony. The Cultural Revolution was in excess of the party-state, even as it was part of the party-state sequence, and even as it ultimately failed to yield a sustainable alternative. The contrast between this moment in Chinese history and the return to law and order afterwards shows just how excessive (in the best and worst sense) the Cultural Revolution was.

In his letter to Slavoj Žižek (also included in the Communist Hypothesis), Badiou argues convincingly, I think, that those of us working to revive communism today should take the Cultural Revolution as our starting point. It is a problem which poses questions for us to solve. 1917 was the historical answer to the failure of the Paris Commune, its “real historical answer,” (274) as Badiou puts it. In his view, the Cultural Revolution is our Paris Commune, a Sphinx who asks us to solve the contradictions of Leninism in order to move ahead with the next phase of revolutions. This Sphinx asks us basic questions: What is revolution? How can socialist revolution result in mass agency? What is the nature of the new revolutionary institutions; are they to remain static and entrenched, or are they just provisional mechanisms for creating a different set of conditions in which new forms of agency can be developed? What organizational forms will be best suited to the next phase of revolution, and how will they be different from one location to another?

On this last question, I am not as quick as Badiou to declare that the revolutionary party as such is saturated, even if the one-party-state, for us, is a dead end. I think that the experiences of contemporary revolutionaries in India, Nepal, and parts of Latin America are showing that the revolutionary party has not lost all utility, and can still be a powerful vehicle for mass movement. But I am convinced that we must seriously problematize how previous revolutionary parties have been structured, and how the party is to relate to the people and the state. I think that we must also work towards a flowering of new revolutionary organizational forms that can exist alongside revolutionary parties, and therefore prevent the identity of party and state which, in my view, inevitably leads to bureaucratic and authoritarian degeneration. All of this is necessary if the next revolutionary sequences are to be based on a mass politics that can sustain itself over time. My strong suspicion is that even with the taking of state power, these sequences will have to be a lot more anarchic than many 20th century Marxists and their progeny have supposed.

Wrapping up…

I suspect that I’ve made my points clear, and perhaps too repetitiously, so I won’t attempt to sum everything up here. I will just close with a few final comments geared towards fleshing out my intention.
Largely what prompted me to prepare these notes for the Brer Rabbit Study Group—as I hinted at in the very first section—is my concern over certain trends and organizations that are gaining a voice today among the U.S. communist movement and who have a decidedly non-emancipatory view of revolution. I am disturbed by their politics in a most visceral way. There is much that I find genuinely nauseating. How many other people have had this same reaction? How many other people get turned off of radical politics generally—and revolutionary communist politics, most importantly—at precisely a time when our movement needs to be growing? I find it troubling when I’ve been told by long-time radical activists that I’m the first communist they ever met and liked. Doesn’t that suggest that our movement has some big problems?
In a recent discussion Kasama’s Jed Brandt put this particular problem in a rather polarizing and elucidating way. I applaud this. He said,

“Some people don’t make the distinction between the iron fortitude that is required to dedicate ones life to serving the people and the kind of iron will that is required to drive a tank over a crowd of unarmed people.”
This is a point which needs to be very much at the fore as we attempt to revitalize the communist movement!
A Study Group participant made a comment in a similar vein. We were discussing what it means to be a revolutionary today, and how figuring this out is a big problem characterized by a great deal of uncertainty. There is much disagreement about how revolutionaries should be, and what they should be doing in our present circumstances. He accepted this relative uncertainty as a real condition that we must confront, but suggested that we have some pretty strong indications. He commented that there are “degrees of freedom” within which we can, with some conviction, be said to be revolutionary, and that there are certain territories into which we might venture that are indubitably “something else.” Applauding at something like the Tiananmen Square massacre would be one of those something elses, a point at which our conception of socialism becomes indistinguishable from fascism, and we plummet headlong from revolution to reaction and even barbarism.

Entering into this new period of uncertainty and upheaval, let’s be clear on these points: We are for revolution and we are for liberation. We are not for something else.
If we care about real people and their lives we must be able to accept that the vast majority of people on the world has rejected authoritarian socialism. We can’t deny the lived experience of people who were rejoicing in the streets when the Berlin Wall came down, for example. People don’t want that, and communists today should not either. This kind of nostalgia and dishonesty is not helping our cause one bit.
Finally, let’s revisit Mao’s famous quotation,

“The masses and the masses alone are the motive force of history.”

This idea is key. We should read this, on the one hand, as a banal statement of fact (historical change occurs because of the productive activity of millions, and now billions, of people); but at the same time we should understand this statement as a prescription—performatively, as they say in linguistics. It is a reality that we are trying to bring about. For it is true that masses of people are pushing this cart along, but they are not yet doing it as consciously and voluntarily organized agents. It is up to us to make this happen. It will require tremendous effort and sacrifice, because all the forces of the existing world are pitted against such a rupture with the previous course of human history. But as far as I’m concerned, if we are not going to try, I’d rather not go on living.


  • Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis (London and New York: Verso, 2010).
  • Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology: Part One, ed. C. J. Arthur (New York: International Publishers, 1970).
  • Rebecca E. Karl, Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World: A Concise History (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010).

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