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Utopian and Banal Positions on Revolution

In a previous post I wrote about the capitalist imaginary, the limits imposed upon our thought and our ability to imagine other possibilities.  And one of the results of these limitations is that the left living at the centres of world capitalism is often caught within this imaginary and barely able to think of other possibilities.  Despite the fact that we have multiple example, some of them world historical, that have demonstrated that existence beyond capitalism is necessary, we often accept the narrative of failure.  Even worse, we refuse to approach these failures critically: some of us turn them into utopian myths in rejection of ruling class ideology, some of us accept all the lies and half-truths promoted by capitalist propaganda about actually existing socialisms––both cases render us incapable of learning from the past, from understanding communism as a living science that develops through world historical revolution.  (Here I use "us" to refer to those of "us" who have spent most of our time living and working as leftists at the centre of capitalism and who have failed, for various reasons, to develop a significant anti-capitalist movement for a very, very long time.)

On one hand, instead of working to build a movement we get excited about every spontaneous revolt and imagine (like those who push the "socialism from below" and "another world is possible" theory primarily specific to Canada) that we just have to wait and people will eventually overthrow capitalism on their own.  People as a natural force, as some abstract principle, that we are apparently not a part of: the people are always elsewhere, waiting for that magical moment to explode into action.  I already critiqued this way of thinking, and how it was applied uncritically to Egypt and Tunisia; it is quite telling that many of those who argued that the uprising in Egypt was going to result in a revolution across the entire middle-east have chosen to forget their manic pronouncements––and act as if they were never dogmatically pushing the "spontaneity=revolution" line––now that they have been proved wrong and Libya is being bombed.  The same arguments regarding spontaneity will be mobilized again, the fact it has yet again been proved wrong forgotten, because we live in a context that tells us that we should not and cannot organize, or that organizing is something done on the internet––mainly by other people who live elsewhere.

On the other hand, while we wait for a utopian revolution to emerge spontaneously, we abide by the terms of the capitalist imaginary.  We like to believe that until capitalism is spontaneously overthrown (apparently the objective conditions should be enough and the subjective conditions will just build themselves), it is revolutionary to spend all of our organizing energy supporting social democracy.  Recently, one of my good comrades alerted me to an article about Quebec Solidaire, a social democratic organization that wants to engage in the parliamentary process.  Although the article, written by a Toronto-based socialist group, points out that Quebec Solidaire is only marginally "anti-capitalist", this has not stopped the people who wrote the article from promoting this organization, publicly and on listservs, as the "most important left force in Canada."  This promotion clearly speaks to a lack of leftist imagination: in one breath we can admit that an organization is not properly anti-capitalist; in the other we can argue that, even still, such a limited organization is somehow the most radical and vital force in Canada.  Although I do not believe that QS is the most radical and vital force in the Canadian left, if it was the most radical and vital force then we should be asking ourselves, as the left, what we are doing wrong.  After all, if our most radical organization is not even as radical as the German Social Democratic Party under Kautsky, then we have a very sad and unimaginative movement.

Truly thinking about what is required to build a movement should mean two things: i) we ignore the parameters drawn by the capitalist imaginary; ii) we place ourselves within the parameters drawn, and that can still be extended, by the socialist imaginary that emerged has emerged through world historical revolutions.  If we neglect the first qualification we become capable of nothing more than arguing for social democracy.  If we neglect the second qualification we become utopians, much like para-scientists who want to invent entirely ungrounded scientific paradigms, based on the most dubious reasons, without any understanding of science (like those new age folks who appeal to an asinine understanding of "quantum mechanics" to defend telepathy and astral projection).

Of course, thinking according to the imagination that was developed through world-historical revolutions––an imagination that can be developed further just as the imagination of physics and biology can also be developed further––is something many of us do not want to do.  Often we believe that we already understand what that imagination means: messiness, violence, failure.  We want a revolution that is not messy, that happens with minimal violence, that will promise perfection: a revolution of angels in the perfect heaven, of Hegel's beautiful souls, of some inner purity that every human is supposed to possess.

We need to return to imagining revolution as a real possibility rather than something that can only transpire in the realm of fantasy or, even worse, something that is completely bounded by the limits of the capitalist imagination.  The first case is utopian; the second case is banal.  And if we imagine a revolution that transgresses capitalism as a real possibility, because it has happened before and can happen again, then we cannot pretend that social democratic parties are "the best examples" of leftwing radicalism in our social contexts.