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.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

On the Question of Revolution Part II

The role of violence in revolution, however, has never been and cannot be formulated into a universal principle. A revolution can come in the form of a popularly supported military take over by a small vanguard (as in Cuba), through an enormous and bloody civil war (the U.S. Civil War) or through consistent struggle using strike tactics and workplace takeovers (halting production, the economy, etc.), culminating in a general strike with relatively little bloodshed (the Russian Revolution). However, the form of the revolution is largely determinant of what kind of society can or will be produced from the old society’s ashes. Likewise, the amount of the violence which occurs is largely dependent upon diverse variables, namely: the material conditions, the political atmosphere, the development in the consciousness of the participants, the numbers involved, etc. Generally, revolutionaries take a principled stand against violence, especially in the forms which manifest themselves through state power (war, police brutality, etc.), racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and other types of prejudice. Similarly, any sort of progressive revolutionary would not call for egregious or unnecessary violence. It would, however, be nearly impossible to find a revolution which was entirely bloodless; radical black civil rights leader Malcolm X succinctly outlines this point: “The French Revolution, what was it based on — the landless against the landlord. What was it for? Land! How did they get it? Bloodshed! There was no love lost, was no compromise, was no negotiation…You don’t have a revolution that doesn’t involve bloodshed.” Thus, to fully understand why and how violence becomes such an issue, the sources and initiators of the violence must be thoroughly analyzed.

For instance, assume that a revolution based on the socialist principles of the workers owning the means of production (factories, schools, offices, etc.) were to occur in the United States. If the workers managed to expropriate the work place, remove the top-down, tyrannical rule of the CEO and install democratic, grassroots institutions, one would have to be willfully ignorant of the lessons of history and class struggle to assume that the ruling class and the state would not forcefully impose itself upon the workers to regain control. One would be hard pressed to find an instance in history where power or privilege was given to the workers and citizens of society without a fight. The great abolitionist Frederick Douglas, in his most famous line, explains that “[p]ower concedes nothing without demand. It never has and never will.”

Thus, it is only sensible that when met with force the working class would have to respond, in defense of the gains made, with force. At the same time, any sensible working class movement would likely attempt to win over portions of the military and police forces (who, of course, largely consist of the working class, a useful contradiction under capitalism) the same way Russian revolutionaries won over soldiers and the Cossacks. It follows that the larger the portion won over to revolution, the less violence is needed to combat the state apparatus.

Some pacifists may contend that all violence should be avoided and is inexcusable. The same pacifist, then, would not accept the violence directed against the state as legitimate and thus, give tacit support to the state’s monopoly on force. The question of the violence of the slave master and the violence of the slave comes into play here; for a pacifist to condemn the violence of a slave breaking the chains of his bondage (which may include violence against the master) is to realistically support the institution of slavery, whether or not one chooses to morally accept it. In a revolutionary situation, it is almost certain that the need for violence will arise at some point to defend the achievements which have been won. Likewise, as history has proven repeatedly, it is extremely foolish for revolutionaries to allow the counterrevolutionary forces the time and resources needed to crush a nascent revolution.

The example of the Paris Commune of 1871 is didactic in this regard. After workers rose up and took control of the city during the Franco-Prussian War, they collectively organized into what some call the first “workers’ state.” The installation of participatory democracy, the separation of church and state, the right of women to vote, the abolition of rent and interest on loans, the postponement of debt, self-policing neighborhoods, and the right of workers to take over a business were some of the major gains made under the Commune. The ruling elites had escaped to Versailles during the war and, not intending the people of Paris to rise up and throw off the shackles of the old society, quickly began to prepare to take Paris back. Prussia, France’s mortal enemy only months previously, quickly released French prisoners of war to help take back the city; the ruling classes of every nation-state were quite terrified by this rapid development of working class power.

As Karl Marx points out, the communards made crucial mistakes by not attacking Versailles and crushing the counterrevolutionary forces which were amassing and, likewise, by failing to seize hold of the national bank immediately. These mistakes eventually caused the Paris Commune to fail as the army marched from Versailles (funded with the money retrieved from the national bank in Paris) and laid siege to the city; ultimately tens of thousands of revolutionary Parisians were killed and the Commune was crushed. Marx would later argue that the fatal mistake was attempting to simply adhere to the old state institutions (such as trying to borrow money from the national bank) rather than destroying the remnants of the previous society (the military, the old leaders, etc.). CLR James, tracing Marx’s argument, explains that “the capitalist army, the capitalist state, the capitalist bureaucracy, cannot be seized by the revolutionary proletariat and used for its own purposes. It had to be smashed completely and a new state organized, based upon the organization of the working class.” This example highlights the fact that the overwhelming use of violence comes from those who wish to stop the transformation of society. The counter-revolutionary forces, the ruling class and those working for it, will assuredly use any means within their grasp to maintain power; thus, it is apparent that revolutionaries cannot simply allow them to do so and, if necessary, must use force to stop them.

The last and possibly most important question concerning American Radicalism is “Can revolution happen in the United States?” The real question, however, should be asked in a slightly different manner: “Can revolution happen again in the United States?” It must not be forgotten that the American War of Independence was a revolutionary upheaval against a monarch which cast off the chains of colonialism. The Civil War tore the country apart and ultimately ended in the abolition of slavery, upon which the entire Southern economy was built. This question, so often pondered by those seeking radical change, is usually answered in the negative. Purported causes run the gamut but some of the common assertions for the inauspiciousness of revolution are as follows: the working class is bought off, the general apathy of the population makes it impossible, the seemingly impregnable military power of the United States government is to great an obstacle, and finally, the internal class structure has changed so dramatically that revolution in the dialectical materialist (socialist, Marxist, etc.) sense is infeasible.

The first three claims can be easily dismissed. “Political” and “economic” issues affect people every day and, whether or not they know it, they are engaged in them. Agree or disagree, their tax dollars fund imperialist wars. The conditions of their roads, schools, infrastructure, and social services are dependant upon political policy. Their employment (or lack thereof), wages, and benefits are inevitably tied up in the capitalist system. Since the late 1970’s until today, real wages for workers have decreased, median family incomes have only been maintained by dramatically increasing work hours and productivity, and some forty seven million Americans are without health insurance. Meanwhile, the wealthiest one percent of the population’s income has tripled, largely negating the idea that the working class has been “bought off” common in New Left radicalism of the 1970’s and even carrying over into today.

The very fact that the military is largely drawn from the working class and the poor is also essential to understanding the role that radicals should play in recruiting soldiers and military personal. One of the most percussive blows to U.S. imperialism was the resistance of G.I.s, many of them radicalized during the process, against the Vietnam war embodied in the mobilization of their collective power into the group Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) ; today, Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) are spearheading the anti-war movement alongside radicals, socialists, and other progressives. Winning over soldiers and sections of the military is key to organizing against not only imperialism, but the current economic system. Thus, the material conditions of capitalism and the political structure are intricately woven into regular peoples’ daily lives. Furthering this concept, the American socialist Hal Draper points out:
"To engage in class struggle it is not necessary to ‘believe in' the class struggle any more than it is necessary to believe in Newton in order to fall from an airplane... The working class moves toward class struggle insofar as capitalism fails to satisfy its economic and social needs and aspirations, not insofar as it is told about struggle by Marxists. There is no evidence that workers like to struggle any more than anyone else; the evidence is that capitalism compels and accustoms them to do so."
Likewise, the notion that people are apathetic or careless is quite elitist. As seen in the recent presidential election, tens of millions of people become energized and mobilized in a fashion which has not been seen in decades and they successfully elected the first black president of a nation built on the terrible crime of slavery. It is apparent that when people feel they have some sense of power and control, imagined or real, they are more than willing to take their destiny into their own hands. As people win struggles (no matter how small) and gain confidence a sense of empowerment develops; Fred Hampton, Chicago chairman of the Black Panther Party, brutally murdered by the FBI in 1969, lucidly articulated this concept:
"[T]he masses belong to what you call the lower class, and when I talk about the masses, I'm talking about the white masses, I'm talking about the black masses, and the brown masses, and the yellow masses, too. We've got to face the fact that some people say you fight fire best with fire, but we say you put fire out best with water. We say you don't fight racism with racism. We're gonna fight racism with solidarity. We say you don't fight capitalism with no black capitalism; you fight capitalism with socialism…We ain't gonna fight no reactionary pigs who run up and down the street being reactionary; we're gonna organize and dedicate ourselves to revolutionary political power and teach ourselves the specific needs of resisting the power structure, arm ourselves, and we're gonna fight reactionary pigs with international proletarian revolution. That's what it has to be. The people have to have the power: it belongs to the people."
The need for interracial and “lower class” solidarity, active participation of the masses, centralized organization (to combat a very centralized power structure), and ultimately, revolution, are all clearly brought to the forefront in Hampton’s analysis.

The last claim, that the United States is now a “post-industrial” nation, articulated largely by post-modern, liberal intellectuals such as Daniel Bell, promotes the conception that due to the change of the class structure (from productive employment to the service section economy) in the United States any sort of workers’ revolution to challenge capitalism is not only irrelevant, but impossible. This ahistorical reading of the material conditions and the Marxist approach to struggle and the working class is flawed in many aspects. First, all workers are wage workers and are exposed to the same exploitation of their labor and the extraction of surplus value which, in turn, creates the capital for capitalism to function and profit to be realized; likewise, they workers still have their hands on the levers of power. Second, while the percentage of jobs in production have decreased relatively (to about 10% of the population, or thirty million workers), the productivity of workers has increased dramatically (up from $2.9 trillion in 1989 to $3.9 trillion in 2000 in manufacturing and up 155% in electronics during the same period) due to automation and labor saving technology. This means that the productive capacity of the United States now relies on a smaller group of workers or, simply, more power has been put into their (collective) hands. Thus, it takes a much smaller group of organized workers to collectively shut down production if some sort of general strike were to occur. Third, service sector workers make up the majority of the workforce; many of these jobs are highly exploitative, low wage positions (cashiers, retail salespersons, etc.) which post-Industrials misinterpret as a shift from industrialism or productive labor. This, however, stems from crucial misunderstanding of the service sectors critical tie to production. As Adam Turl notes, “the growth in services is not in opposition to industrial society but as a direct result of the needs of highly advanced—more productive—global lean production.” This means that service workers are able to exercise tremendous power over the system of production and distribution. To cite just one example, when the teachers in a city go on strike, the children who normally attend the schools in the area while their parents work must be cared for and many parents are forced to stay home which magnifies into broader economic implications. Every worker, directly industrial or in the service sector, fills an important niche which gives them a certain amount of power. Clearly, the implications of these facts cement the idea that the possibility of revolution (in the form of a general strike and workers’ seizing the means of production) to overthrow capitalism is still viable. More importantly, this revolution must come about by what Marx called the self-activity of the working class.

Huey P. Newton, leader of the Black Panther Party, in a debate with the arch-conservative intellectual William F. Buckley, asked him, had he been alive during the 1776 American Revolution “which side would you have been on?” Buckley answered that he “probably…would have been on the side of George Washington” but was not completely sure and, abstractly qualifying the answer in his normal fashion, claimed that he would have only participated if the revolution will go down in history as a “humane one.” Aside from the impossibility of Buckley’s qualification, he outlines how even the most wretched reactionary would have, at one point in time, supported revolution for what he saw as a just cause. His acceptance of revolution, therefore, is simultaneously an acceptance that revolution may act as the tool for those in pursuance of social transformation. It follows from this that given the tremendous inequality, the constantly expanding gap between rich and poor, the imperialist wars, and the host of other problems that identify American capitalism may be sufficient grounds for the demand of large scale change. As has been established, the only way to bring about such fundamental change is a revolution which smashes the current state and replaces it with democratic institutions that reach all realms of life, including the workplace; this process must come about by those who wield the power over production and distribution, the workers themselves. The question of revolution is the fundamental question that progressives and radicals must take up within the “post-industrial”, 21st century United States if they wish to see the immense changes needed to stop war, racism, poverty, environmental destruction and the other ills enervating humanity and the world.


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