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The Parameters of Counter-Revolution

This is entry is inspired by a recent post on The Workers Dreadnought where the author briefly discussed, in the context of the arrest of Asit Sengupta, the unwillingness of North American communists to take the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism seriously.

A common adage amongst the North American left, whenever the topic of the end of capitalism is broached, is that there is no point in building towards revolution because revolution is impossible in the current climate.  Thus, the best we can do is work with social democratic organizations to mitigate the misery of the oppressed classes.  Or, better yet, if we're academic leftists, write more books about the evils of capitalism and the need for a revolution that could never happen in our lifetimes.

The problem with living in the centres of world capitalism is that the contradictions of capitalism are muted by the larger measure of privilege (or at least the illusion of privilege) and the "culture industry" ideology that results from imperialism.  The need for revolution is more consciously felt and understood in the peripheries where the contradictions are bare and, as some of us marxists used to say, the "subjective conditions are right."  Here, unless you're living in a ghetto or reserve and experiencing the brutal contradictions of colonialism, the need for revolution is not consciously expressed by the masses––at least not in any coherent manner.

Rather than trying to solve the problem of how to work towards revolution in this context, leftists here often decide that the muted contradictions and comparatively larger measure of privilege, along with the ideology this produces, means that revolution is impossible.  In some cases this results in a juvenile third worldism where we decide that revolution can only happen in the peripheries and that "third world" movements will do all of the revolutionary work for us.  Most often, however, we take the most jaded position by ignoring the most revolutionary movements in the contemporary peripheries (i.e. the Maoists in Nepal and India, for example) and decide that some populist Bonapartism coming out of South America is the best we can do against capitalism in the current climate.

Now I agree that the so-called "subjective conditions" are far from ready in North America: I agree that the hegemonic ideology of the centres of capitalism results in a "common sense" anti-revolutionary attitude (and in some cases an extremely conservative and fascistic attitude) amongst large sectors of the working class.  Understanding the concrete parameters of a social context, however, does not mean that we should accept the logic of these parameters.  According to the overall logic of capitalism, after all, we are living at the end of history and the best we can do is adapt and work within the system.  Since those of us who call ourselves anti-capitalist do not accept the general logic of capitalism, why should we accept any of its logical subsets?  The idea that it is impossible to build towards revolution in the centres of capitalism, at least not for a long time, is part of the counter-revolutionary ideology that we see as an obstacle––it is that obstacle as well.

In fact, it is this ideology of accepting the logic of central capitalism's parameters that has contributed to the "subjective conditions" never being revolutionary.  One of the reasons we are so far from building towards an overthrow of capitalism in this context is because, for a very long time now, we have refused to take revolution seriously: we do nothing but lament how impossible it is to pursue revolutionary aims in this context, despair any potential party formation as premature, and waste our time working with social democratic institutions, single issue affinity organizations, or writing homages to revolutionary politics we refuse to practice.  Thus, when the "objective conditions" are right for revolution––when economic crises reveal the limits of capitalism––we have no way of organizing ourselves and others in any revolutionary manner.  Rather, we let the fascists organize amongst large sectors of the poor (i.e. the Tea Party and other similar movements) and then lament the fact that the poor are being manipulated against their own interests.  But if we have failed to organize and build sustainable anti-capitalist structures, then we should also recognize that the rise of populist fascism is due to our jaded stasis.

Perhaps revolution might only be possible in the distant future, I am not saying that if we get our act together and build a properly revolutionary party now we can witness its overthrow in a few decades.  I do not possess a crystal ball, I do not believe in magical sooth-saying.  By this same logic, however, no one else should make the claim that the end of capitalism can only happen for a very long, long time––this is prophetic mumbo-jumbo, and the most laziest prophetic mumbo-jumbo at that.  Even if it is true that the revolution is only possible at some distant future date, it will never happen if we do nothing, and this future event horizon will continue to grow even more distant the longer we continue to do nothing.  I am reminded, here, of Walter Benjamin's Theses On The Philosophy of History where he discusses the Social Democratic Party's failure to build towards revolution due to its obsession with a far-off future date of communism.

Of course, there are numerous ways that North American leftists dodge the charge that they are not building towards revolution.  Some organizations advocate entryist tactics with social democratic institutions (i.e. liquidating themselves in the Canadian NDP or the US Obama movement) and argue that they can take over these capitalist structures and make them revolutionary.  Others speak of "political machines" that should be pursued instead of a revolutionary party and that might, regardless of these institutions inability to produce a coherent revolutionary ideology, lead towards a party at some unknown future date when the "subjective conditions" are ready for this event.  These are both dodges because they reject the need to build an actual revolutionary organization, substituting revolutionary politics for cynical Blanquism: we'll trick the working classes into becoming a party when their consciousness has magically become revolutionary due to nebulous and spontaneous forces.

Moreover, this cynical kind of leftism is doubly problematic in the context of North America which is still, as much as some leftists do not want to fully interrogate this reality, primarily defined by settler-colonialism.  Working with the social democratic organizations of electoral politics, or wasting our time on an equally social democratic "political machine", ignores the principal contradiction that defines all class struggle in a settler-colonial society: the contradiction between colonizer and colonized (that mediates the contradiction between bourgeois and proletariat).  Social democratic electoral parties are still parties of a colonial government and thus will never be interested in the national self-determination of colonized nations––their very existence is premised on the existence of a colonial state.  And these broad-based "political machine" organizations, because they try not to alienate people by taking strong anti-imperialist stances, will never do anything anti-colonial aside from condemning the abuse of the "rights" of the colonized––these "rights" understood, at the end of the day, as permissions granted by the colonial state.  Most importantly, however, we need to realize that the flattened consciousness that we imagine prevents revolution at the centres of capitalism is not necessarily experienced by the direct victims of settler-colonialism who, like those living at the global peripheries, are well aware of the brutal contradictions of colonial-capitalism.

Meanwhile, people are dying in their fight for a better world elsewhere.  When we aren't simply ignoring these struggles we imagine that our internationalism can be nothing more than a weekend protest against the G20 where some cars are burned, some activists arrested, and we can return to naval-gazing about our civil liberties while revolutionaries in other countries are massacred, disappeared, and sentenced to life imprisonment.


  1. Another excellent post.

    It made me think of the recently released statements from members of the Red Army Faction about revolutionary practice and their critiques of the German left. The later statements and reflections made by those who suffered under the repression of the German state are also important as they discuss the concrete problems and contradictions which will (did) arise from revolutionary activity (though my favourite statement so far is Proll's at his trial for the Frankfurt Department Store bombing!).

    Your mention of the settler mentality of workers in North America brought Sakai to mind (Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat was simply terrific by the way. Thanks for posting about it), particularly his statements regarding the struggle for the land between the settlers and the colonized peoples, which revoltionaries should take seriously as physical space to implement, practice and sustain the revolutionary socialist society is crucial. This weaves with the Naxilite struggle in India and the Nepal Maoists as they have shown an astute understanding of the need to take possession of the land and to defend it with vigour (perhaps this is why they have been "ignored" over here as the connotation of securing the space--armed conflict--is a bit much for them to stomach).


  2. So much is ignored over here: as I pointed out in the brief intro to this post, it was inspired by the Workers Dreadnought post about Asit Sengupta - so many people here just want to ignore some of the most vital struggles in the world today.

    Although I have theoretical problems with the RAF's revolutionary praxis (that whole adventurist urban guerrilla method without a mass line doesn't really work), I have a soft spot for them. In case anyone is reading these comments, the book I think RRH is mentioning is the recently released collection of Red Army Faction documents that can be found here:

  3. I don't like to break in on you like this, but I simply must ask for your take on what is happening in Tunisia right now.

    I've been looking for a MLM analysis on this uprising and have so far not found one. My initial reaction is to support what I am seeing, but, for the most part, I'm seeing it through the lens of the bourgeois media with all it's attendant focus on the "violence" and "dis-order".

    I have read that there are similar uprisings brewing in Algeria, Morocco, Jordan and possibly Egypt. What, if any, MLM influence is at work here? Are there communist parties aligned with the masses or working as a vanguard? I have read that the Baath is active in some of these countries.

    My impression is that the revolution in Tunisia seems to be heavily bourgeoisified. I see a lot of those who have been interviewed in the street seem to be from the petit bourgeoisie and terms such as "liberty", "freedom" and "democracy" are being batted about in the usual narrow and totalizing sense.

    Then again, we can hardly expect the "western" media to focus on the proletarian nature of this uprising which I suspect is much more interested in more radical changes.

    JMP, if you have some info and or analysis, it would be really welcome and appreciated.


  4. I've been thinking a lot about Tunisia recently, and about writing an analysis, but I'm still trying to figure things out. My partner is actually attending a group of anti-imperialist Arabs that is trying to organize around the Tunisian uprising, so she's currently more informed about this than myself.

    Generally speaking, though, I think it would be a mistake of calling the uprising "bourgeoisified" though the bourgeoisie/comprador in Tunisia are the only organized class that can take advantage of what is a radical rebellion of the poorest sectors of the country. I see this as part of the uprisings around the world that have been caused by the proletariat's vicious experience of the recession (and in Tunisia about half the country is jobless) but in a country with a military dictatorship the uprising is treated to more violent reprisals.

    Since most of Tunisia's organized left was shattered or put in prison, there is no one to theoretically and practically organize the spontaneous revolutionary sentiments of the masses, however, so that they can organize as a class and for their class interests. So instead the masses are getting organized by the only class/classes in Tunisia that has structural organization - a class that is both semi-bourgeois, semi-feudal, and semi-comprador - and that's the same class the previous dictator was part of. In fact, the interim government is the PM of the previous government! Maybe the society will be slightly liberalized but, really, the demands on the level of the street are far more radical but also not homogenous.

    Which is why it is a rebellion with revolutionary potential which will never be revolutionized (unless something completely historically unprecedented happens!) and will probably lead to betrayal and a palace coup that takes advantage of the masses and ignores the real demands.


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