The Organic Intellectual

If our greatest task is to liberate humanity, as Paulo Freire asserts, then it is absolutely essential that we create a culture of resistance from below that is able not only to counter, but transcend the limitations of the ruling culture imposed by above. Hopefully, The Organic Intellectual will help serve this purpose.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

On the Question of Revolution Part I

A century ago the famous Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, exiled from his homeland, despondent, and cooped up in a deplorable apartment building in Zurich, Switzerland, wrote “I will not see the revolution in my lifetime.” A month later, female workers in Russia conducted a massive strike against terrible working conditions which pored over to all working sectors and catalyzed the first phase of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Seventy years ago George Orwell described the excitement gripping Spain during the Civil War as he recorded his travels through Barcelona, the first town he had ever been to while “the working class was in the saddle” and where “every building of any size had been seized by the workers…every shop and café…had been collectivized … [and] revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls…that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud.”Only four decades ago France sprung up in the one of its largest revolutionary upheavals since the French Revolution. Galvanized by student protesters pouring into the streets, the protest spread like wildfire to the working sector, culminating with more than ten million workers erecting barricades and clashing with police in what was the largest general strike of 1968. The United States has seen two enormous, bloody revolutions in the relatively short time span it has existed as a political entity; one to claim it’s independence in Britain and another which overthrow the institution of slavery in the South.

The radical American left has been everything but short of opinions and theories concerning revolution. Some fundamental questions arise for any individual, organization, or party seeking social transformation: Is revolution a requirement in order to fundamentally restructure society? How practical and effective is revolution as a means of progressive social change? What role does violence have in a revolution, should it be minimized and, if so, how? And, ultimately, is revolution even a feasible option in the United States (or, for that matter, in any first world, industrialized nation)? These are questions which the left has been forced to confront countless times in the midst of the various social uprisings and societal transitions throughout American history. These questions, and the challenge of providing pragmatic and veritable answers for them, are the fundamental issues which must be resolved for the advance of progressive social transformation. A material analysis of these questions, formulated by examining the overarching system of exploitation under capitalism, the primary functions of the state apparatus, and the plethora of historical examples leads to the resounding conclusion that not only is revolution possible within the confines of this “quintessential center-right nation,” but it is an absolute requirement to dismantle the oppressive institutions in existence and the social relations stemming from them in order to promote the liberation humanity as a whole.

The question of whether or not revolution is required to overthrow an exploitative system and replace it or whether radical groups should work through the system in place is a debate as old as revolutions themselves. Upon a deeper look, one will find that if the desire of a radical group is to fundamentally alter social relations and replace decrepit or malevolent societal institutions, than revolution is necessary. If, on the other hand, the organization’s scope remains narrow with small reforms or single issue demands as the main objectives within an otherwise sound system, it is a very different case. However, the most interesting argument, a sort of “middle of the road” postulation, is that working through the system (parliament, congress, the electoral process, etc.) voters are able to institute small reforms and, eventually, upon the compilation of all these small reforms society will have ultimately transformed itself through this process. This question is possibly one of the most highly debated and challenging conceptual roadblocks for many radical organizations, especially within the United States.

The answer to this question can be derived from studying the lessons of past revolutionary upheavals and attempts at progressive social change. Finding the explanation for why or why not they ended in failure or success is vital to understanding whether or not revolution is a requirement for more than superficial change. As the United States, and similarly radicals within the United States, are not isolated in a political and economic vacuum, reviewing historical occurrences from both within and outside of the United States will be necessary. To begin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, his presidency in the midst of the great depression, was forced to push through a host of reforms which benefited the working class and the poor. Public works projects, the right to unionize, and many other serious gains were won during his presidency. On the surface, this would appear to be a benevolent gift from above and a signal that the system does indeed work. However, if the surface is scratched a bit further, one will find that FDR disregarded the idea that he was a friend of working class people, campaigning in 1936 as the “savior” of “the system of private profit and free enterprise,” claiming, in response to critics, that he was “the best friend the profit system ever had.” It took massive pressure from below in the form of protests, strikes, sit-ins, factory takeovers, and enormous class struggle against the system which forced him to make such concessions. In the past four decades, a vast majority of the wins made in the “New Deal” programs have been rolled back, wages have steadily declined for workers, rates of unionization have dropped dramatically, and speed-ups, overtime, and terrible benefits are common.

If nothing else is apparent, it is obvious that reforms alone cannot be the solution to societal transformation. Reforms can alter certain things within a society, yet leave the essential social and economic relationships intact. Thus, they are extremely susceptible to removal once the ruling class finds it beneficial to do so. As Paul D’Amato explains, “[t]he extension or retraction of a particular reform may ease or intensify the burden that capitalist exploitation and oppression puts on the mass of the population, but it does not change the fact of that exploitation.” The debate extends far outside the left of the United States; Rosa Luxemburg, in “Reform or Revolution,” states:
"[P]eople who pronounce themselves in favor of the method of legislative reform in place of and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution, do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new society, they take a stand for surface modifications of the old society."

A wide range of historical examples can be analyzed to properly understand this philosophy, known widely as “reformism.” Almost universally this method of slowly transforming society into one which benefits the common majority has proved futile. One can look to the massive, social democratic reformist party in Germany in the early 20th century which held key positions in society and had won some gains for the working class as an example. By the 1930’s, however, Germany was not a social democratic haven but instead a fascist state dominated by Hitler and the Nazi party. Although an extreme example, Germany provides a paragon of reformist philosophy and explicates how, alone, reformism ultimately ends in defeat.

An even more urgent issue is what happens when a government comes to power through the established, electoral political system and embodies some sort of challenge to the ruling elites. Salvador Allende was democratically elected president of Chile in 1970 through a campaign promising massive change which would upset the institutions currently in place. His program, entitled “La vía chilena al socialismo,” (The Chilean Path to Socialism) focused on a few key reforms: the nationalization of the mining and banking industries, land redistribution to peasants from wealthy landlords, a government run healthcare and educational system, and food programs for the poor. Allende, while not a revolutionary and attempting to confine himself within the legal parameters of the established state, was a serious challenge to the wealthy elites and foreign corporations (such as the United States Anaconda mining corporation). In only three years the CIA orchestrated a coup with top Chilean military leaders in order to overthrow the democratically elected government, assassinate Allende, and replace him with the horrendous dictator Pinochet (who quickly introduced harsh neoliberal reforms, rolling back any gains won under Allende for workers and peasants). Ultimately, this tragic example highlights the limits of reformism.

From this, the logical assumption can be drawn that revolution is the key to ultimately transforming society. It can also be concluded that the state (the military, police, national guard, etc.) is not a neutral force and, thus, the ruling class will use the state apparatus to preserve their rule over the majority. Countless other examples could be cited which give credence to this fact. For instance, in the United States minor changes occur when the Democrats are elected to replace the Republicans (who, a few years later, simply switch positions again and the cycle repeats itself for eternity) but this has never provided any fundamental break with the ruthless profit system which both parties represent. Even if a seriously well intentioned, third party candidate was elected who planned to institute reforms which redistributed wealth from the elites to the working majority, an enormous legal, political, and economic battle would undoubtedly ensue which would prevent this from happening. The capitalist class has a wide array of legal mechanisms (loopholes, capital flight, etc.), state functions (monopoly of the legitimate use of force), and institutional biases (judges, other politicians, lawyers, etc. who are part of the ranks in question) that promote their interests at the expense of everyone else. A simple, hypothetical scenario within the U.S. framework provides an illuminating explanation of the limits of reform:
"Suppose that you were elected president and were determined to impose a tax on the rich to pay for a system of universal health care. Within minutes of taking office, you would get a visit from your appointed treasury secretary and the chair of the government’s central bank, the Federal Reserve, whom you didn’t pick. They would tell you that Wall Street wanted nothing to do with your plan unless you compromised. If you persisted, the bosses would take further action—perhaps sending their money out of the country so it couldn’t be taxed and causing turbulence on the financial markets until you cried 'uncle.' "
This is not to imply that reforms are unimportant or do not have a significant niche in developing the forces capable of changing society. On the contrary, reforms which improve the lives of working people should be embraced. More often than not these reforms bolster the confidence of the working class and poor; after all, it was that same class who organized and fought for them. For instance, winning the eight hour working day or the right to organize in the United States was a huge success for the labor movement; the right to vote for women was likewise a major step towards equality for the womens' suffrage movement. However, judging from past historical experience, the guiding objective of any radical movement which wishes to truly attain liberation must be revolution; nothing short of a revolution which overthrows the entire system and begins the recreation of a new society, promoting the well being of the majority rather than the rich, can maintain the gains of the past and defend itself against the reactionary forces intent on destroying those gains.

Now that the limits of reformism have been established, one may contend the effectiveness of revolution as means of social change. It should not be assumed that every political upheaval is one of progressive transformation; it is not the case that every revolution will succeed in achieving its goals or that they are infallible signs of progress. However, it can be said that revolution is a requirement for the fundamental restructuring of society to take place. To understand that massive, popular revolutions can secure the desires of the majority, however, it must first be demonstrated that regular people fighting back against the system can produce change. Again, historical examples from both the United States and around the world should be brought to light to truly understand this vital aspect need to achieve social and economic progress.

The civil rights movement in the United States during the 1960’s was a time of immense social struggle of grassroots efforts to combat the hideous forms of racism and prejudice which gripped both the South and the North, albeit in different forms. Enormous campaigns, waged by regular, working class people, both black and white, against the injustice and legal segregation of the South, along with the disguised institutional and economic inequality of the North, won some impressive reforms because of their struggle. Racial segregation was legally struck down, integration of the schools became common rhetoric, affirmative actions programs (despite largely targeting the already well to do) were implemented, blacks won back voting rights that were previously denied to them, and various other social gains were gained during this time.

However, if one were analyze the economic difference between blacks and whites forty years ago and blacks and whites today, one finds that not much difference has taken place. A slightly larger black “middle class” has developed, yet, enormous differences in wages, employment, education, housing, rates of incarceration, healthcare, and a host of other material factors highlight the massive inequality which continues to plague the nation.

The fact that a black man has just been elected to the highest office in the United States is something to be said in favor of the idea that personal prejudice has been combated quite thoroughly; however, the fact remains that institutional racism promotes vicious social and economic inequality. The reforms won during the 1960’s were important gains for the black community and society as a whole but they left the underlying class structure intact; the economic system of capitalism which produces this vast inequality was untouched and by incorporating some blacks into the ruling class, conservatives and the elites have been able to stifle legitimate complaints of inequality and intentional, structured racism. Some civil rights leaders did grasp the need for fundamental change, as Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed out:
"There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, why are there forty million poor people in America? And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy… We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring… [Y]ou begin to ask the question, 'who owns the oil?'... 'Who owns the iron ore?'… 'Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?' "
Two conclusions can be drawn from this example. First, it is apparent that when regular people stand up and organize campaigns to fight back against injustice they can win important gains for themselves. Second, it is true that without restructuring the basic economic system, those same social reforms won in the past can be easily reversed and stripped away when the ruling class finds it beneficial to do so.

Furthermore, by understanding the system as a hodgepodge of unrelated, isolated political issues further stimulates the idea that revolution is unneeded and, indeed, undesirable. On the contrary, one must adopt the idea that the various issues which impact people everyday are actually an interconnected web, relating to everything else in a very dialectical nature and brought together through the nexus of the dominant economic, political, and social system. To highlight one example, the United States is one of the few industrialized nations without free access to higher education. It also has the largest, strongest, and well equipped military in the world. At first, these two facts seem innocently separate from one another. It is not hard to conclude, however, that the military relies quite heavily on those who are victims of resource lacking, financially deprived educational institutions. The relatively poor primary education system and the tremendously expensive universities (also strongly correlated with crime, poverty, and hugely profitable prison industry) in the United States provide the military with a useful pool of candidates which they can prey upon. Likewise, every tax dollar which is applied to national defense, the military budget, costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, missile defense programs in Eastern Europe, etc., is one less dollar which could be redirected for healthcare, job programs, crumbling public schools, public infrastructure, or a host of other things which would actually benefit the citizenry. Thus, it also becomes apparent that the cost of imperialism, for the benefit of a select few, is put on the backs of the many. Imperialism, of course, is a natural element of capitalism which must constantly attempt to dismantle trade barriers, forcefully open markets, control the world’s nature resources, and dominate the labor force of other nations. As president Woodrow Wilson so ravenously explained one hundred years ago:
"Since trade ignores national boundaries and the manufacturer insists on having the world as a market, the flag of his nation must follow him, and the doors of the nations which are closed against him must be battered down…Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process. Colonies must be obtained or planted, in order that no useful corner of the world may be overlooked or left unused."
Therefore, it is essential that radicals perceive the system as a whole and not as a single issue which exists in a political vacuum, an anomaly of an otherwise decent system.

To overcome such an immense, interconnected system, however, takes some sort of revolution. To find evidence that revolutions produce fundamentally different societies than those before them, one must only look to relatively recent examples of revolutionary events. The American Revolution of 1776 was the first time that a colony attempted to overthrow the rule of the mother country to gain independence and, even more importantly, abolish the monarchial system of governance (to be replaced with another exploitative, yet undeniably progressive, system where wealth controls the nation). The French Revolution in 1789, following suite, attempted to create an even more radical republican society where democratic institutions replaced the hereditary rule of kings (even beheading the monarch, quite symbolic). The Haitian Revolution, beginning in 1791, overthrew an entire slave system and created the first Black republic, which struck fear into the hearts of European empires and shook the very foundations of what the world had previously known. The Civil War in the United States from 1861-65, although not officially labeled a “revolution,” dismantled a slave society within a nation and instituted tremendous change for the course of American society where wage labor would go on to replace chattel slavery. The Russian Revolution of 1917 overthrew a tsar, dismantled a bourgeois parliament, and instituted, if only for a brief period prior to being destroyed and substituted with state capitalism, the first state run by workers councils (called soviets) which democratically controlled both the political and economic aspects of society.

The Civil War and Revolution in Spain, 1936, combated fascism as a political ideology and tens of thousands of regular, ordinary people attempted to institute a collective workers’ state; they succeeded shortly in some areas of Spain. The Cuban Revolution of 1959 was one of the first serious instances of a popular, nationalist revolution bravely

threatening U.S. hegemony and business interests in Latin America. Various revolutions in African won political independence (although rarely economic freedom) from traditionally oppressive European states. Many more examples exist and could be cited to explicate on the social progress which can be contained within a revolutionary uprising.

Thus, it is impossible to deny the utterly essential role of revolution in producing prodigious social change. The tenuous idea, stressed by the ruling elites, that large-scale change comes through a gradation of small reforms within the system is didactic; it is a form of propaganda to entrench citizens of a particular society within the confines of that society, delineating vacuous justifications for functioning inside of a certain realm in order to ameliorate the ills of society through small-scale, conservative goals. Upon closer analysis, the futility of this tactic (as the nexus of organization) becomes apparent and it’s true nature, that of enervating social movements, is unveiled. The next question, one which often divides even those who fight for overarching structural changes, is what role does violence play in a popular, mass revolutionary upheaval? Is there a natural proclivity towards violence that should be accepted as universal? Or should violence of all sorts be proscribed in a sort of utopian, Gandhian ideology?

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