IN THE NAME OF SOCIALISM — “A CHAIN OF HISTORIC DEFEATS”
(Written for a bilingual collection published by Mazdoor Mukti (Kolkata), to commemorate the centenary of the Russian Revolution)
“The whole road of socialism – so far as revolutionary struggles are concerned – is paved with nothing but thunderous defeats. Yet, at the same time, history marches inexorably, step by step, toward final victory! Where would we be today without those “defeats,” from which we draw historical experience, understanding, power and idealism?” — Rosa Luxemburg
Many times in their political interventions Marx and Engels used the term socialism to signify any critique of capitalism both in theory and practice. In the Communist Manifesto they showed how this critique had provenance in various class standpoints. They developed a typology of socialisms which demonstrated that actually no class was satisfied within capitalism, not even the bourgeoisie; hence these classes developed their own critiques of capitalism, and therefore socialisms. Marx and Engels assessed the political dimensions and limits of these socialisms. How much they could really question capitalism in concrete terms was dependent on the respective class capacities, the location of these classes in the overall capital relations. These class critiques actually shaped the dynamics of capitalism too — exposing its contradictions and motivating changes. But only communism or the critique of capitalism from the standpoint of the working class has the capacity to present an all round critique — being an immanent critique it could go, not just against, but beyond capitalism. Communism or Proletarian socialism is “the expression of historical necessity”. Since “the proletariat has ‘no ideals to realise'”, the proletarian critique “can only breathe life into the things which the dialectics of history have forced to a crisis; it can never ‘in practice’ ignore the course of history, forcing on it what are no more than its own desires or knowledge. For it is itself nothing but the contradictions of history that have become conscious.”(1)
Call them deterministic, if you may, but it is true that Marx and Engels uttered at numerous junctures of their political activism and theoretical reflections that socialism/communism “cannot be ordered by decree”, that “revolutions are not made deliberately and arbitrarily but that everywhere and at all times they are the necessary consequences of circumstances which are not in any way whatever dependent either on the will or on the leadership of individual parties or of whole classes.” (2) But the proof of the pudding is in the eating — whether the circumstances were appropriate or not, whether the revolutions that happened in the twentieth century were postcapitalist/socialist or not, whether the leadership, individual parties etc did or did not rise up to the occasion provided by the circumstances could only be judged retrospectively. As Luxemburg commanded, “The question of why each defeat occurred must be answered. Did it occur because the forward-storming combative energy of the masses collided with the barrier of unripe historical conditions, or was it that indecision, vacillation, and internal frailty crippled the revolutionary impulse itself?” (3) However, even these problems of subjectivity must be explained in terms of their constitutivity — as evolving in the dynamics of the organic social processes that delimit subjectivity formation and freedom.
Fataha is an Arabic word meaning to open, to grant, to be victorious etc. It forms the root for Al Fattah, which is one of the names of Allah and means the Opener. What makes this term, fataha, interesting is the combined dialectical sense that its diverse meanings render. The way it celebrates, yet humiliates the victorious is quite fascinating – the victory or triumph is nothing more (and, of course, nothing less) than an opening. I think the heroic tragedies in history are mostly in forgetting this lesson. The so-called “conscious” radical social agencies often are oblivious of the dialectical truth of transience – they as missionaries, which definitely they are, think they have put the society to the desired pathway to the future, when it was just a mere possibility, one of the many possibilities. In fact, they have done nothing but opened Pandora’s box, bringing the society to the brink of possibilities (and uncertainties). What usually happens is that the phenomenality of the victory preoccupies everybody, it is reified.
The Paris Commune “inaugurated” the “glorious movement” — “the dawn of the great social revolution which will for ever free the human race from class rule.” It was the concrete beginning of coherent revolutionary politics of the working class that continues to train generations of world revolutionaries, despite recurrent reversals as revolutionary advancements are time and again consolidated in the form of nationalistic successes and gains. Even though locally the Paris Commune was crushed, “the presence of the threatening army of the proletariat of the whole world gathering in the rear of its heroic vanguard crushed by the combined forces of Thiers and William of Prussia” “attest the hollowness of their [the enemies’] successes.” (4)
The October Revolution in its initial years was always taken as a mere “opening” for the European Revolution at least, if not the world revolution. It inaugurated a series of working class led revolutionary upsurges throughout Europe. Revolutionaries in Russia were aware of the need for the expansion of the revolution for the deepening of the revolution. Outside Russia, the revolutionary solidarity forces were intensifying their own struggles, which were understood as building upon the successful “opening.” However, as the world revolutionary movement subsided, especially with the defeats of the German Revolution, the “opening” became conscious of its distinction, its own being and endeavoured to survive merely as a state – regimenting internal forces of transformation and manipulating the vestiges of the solidarity forces to ensure its own survival. It became a model state. As the crisis of capitalism deepened, the “Russian Path” emerged as a formidable competitor to welfarist capitalism and techno-social corporatism that evolved to re-regulate national economies. The competition between these political-economic regimes took numerous turns – the Second World War, Cold War, Arms Race, and of course, “peaceful coexistence” that Stalin (not Khrushchev) initiated – “Let us not mutually criticize our systems. Everyone has the right to follow the system he wants to maintain.”(5)
The Chinese Revolution too emerged as an opening for the revolutionary upsurges in various colonial and post-colonial peasant societies that questioned the teleology of market-oriented European capitalism. A planned nationalist transition with a controlled competitive regime, unimpeded by the imperialist politico-economic demands gripped the socialist imagination in these backward societies. We see large revolutionary movements and people’s wars rising in various parts of the world, especially on behalf of the pauperised peasantry and the precarised youth. These movements again saw the Chinese revolution just as an opening. But eventually the crisis of welfarism and statist capitalism, on the one hand, and the Cold War bipolarity, on the other, led to the reduction of various new de-decolonised states into self-hating rentier-bureaucracies, which bargained with the two poles and eventually became the ground for the neoliberal regime of economic restructuring. Ultimately, the Chinese state itself threw away the mantle of the Opener, and entered the fray to attract financialised capital huckstering upon the local institutions, resources and labouring population cheaply available.
On a much smaller scale, the Cuban Revolution too emerged as an opening for the Latin American revolutionaries and in Africa. Most of the time both Cuban and Chinese revolutions combined to inspire peasant revolts. Che Guevara epitomised this opening, lending himself to replicate the Cuban experience across continents – Congo and Bolivia, but to remarkable failures. What he lacked, unlike the Maoist conceptualisation of the protracted war, was the ability to keep politics in command. His guerrilla practices were extreme forms of voluntarism and subjectivism. On the other hand, the Maoist practice internationally suffered from both conceptual and practical overgeneralisation, which came from the legitimate practice of developing “base areas.” The territorial militarist symbolism and existentialism of localised peasant struggles overpowered the political sense of these movements. This led to the subservience of every expansion to secure base areas, which were increasingly surrounded and squeezed by the globalised networks of the capitalist circuit. Hence, the base areas remained central to revolutionary survivalism, while becoming marginal to the overall anti-capitalist movement of the working class. Guerrillas became identities in themselves, rather than “masses in arms”, as Kwame Nkrumah used to define a guerrilla. These movements could never become threats to capitalism, but always remained as actual scapegoats to impose global McCarthyism.
In fact, it was this marginalisation and deadlock that the movements like Zapatistas in Mexico apprehended in the 1980-90s, and were forced to envisage struggle and solidarity beyond instituted territorialities and state power. It was a recognition of the implausibility of the statist imaginary of post-capitalist transformation in the age of financialised transnational capital regimes. The critique of militarism and vanguardism presented by movements like the Zapatistas was the clarity that “you cannot reconstruct the world or society, or rebuild national states now in ruins, on the basis of a quarrel over who will impose their hegemony on society.” (6) The impetus to recognise and build a world of many worlds was not a simple rhetoric to revert to some united front tactics. It was a result of a deeper critique of relative “human conditions” and a self-critique of revolutionary practice, that was fixated upon the pre-determined goal of capturing state power. The critique of vanguardism that the Zapatistas presented was an affirmation of the vanguard as constantly (re)composed in the diverse levels of struggle – “We do not want to monopolize the vanguard or say that we are the light, the only alternative, or stingily claim the qualification of revolutionary for one or another current. We say, look at what happened. That is what we had to do.” (7) Of course, by relinquishing the aim of state power, they affirm themselves to be only a subset of the protracted global struggle. The Zapatistas provided an opening for the movemental critique of capitalism and capitalist state-formation, but the hypostatisation of the movement form that happened subsequently externalised this critique and reduced it to a dualism of state and civil society, that the process of state formation has always sought to pose. The powerful Zapatista experiment was eventually circumscribed within the NGOised civil society discourse – lobbyist rights, localist self-help politics and difference assertion which suited the neoliberal political economy based upon an infinite discretisation of human capacity and lean politics. The solidarity politics and economy that were envisaged in the Zapatista movement were abandoned in favour of identitarianist assertions, rights discourse and lifestyle autonomy. Instead of negating the state in practice, the state question was left unproblematised, avoided and wished away.
If the post-Keynesian neoliberal counterrevolution professes to minimise the State by proclaiming it out of bounds from economy, it is simply vocalising the given divide between the economic and the political that characterises the capitalist system itself. What this divide means is the politics of depoliticisation of exchange relations – therefore, economy is always political economy, even if it is depoliticised. Whichever state form that has existed in the history of the modern state has come into being to facilitate the reproduction of exchange relations. The function of state in all its forms is to soak away the organic emergence of class struggle in these exchange relations, and limit it to the political superstructure. If the Zapatistas exposed the crisis of valorisation on the margins of exchange relations and they could effectively practice “the idea of simply turning our back on the state,” their practice could not become more than an inspiration for those who found themselves enmeshed in exchange relations. John Holloway notes, “…there is no golden rule, no purity to be sought. Thus, for example, the Zapatistas in Chiapas make an important principle of not accepting any support from the state, whereas many urban pro-Zapatista groups in different parts of the world accept that they cannot survive without some form of state support (be it in the form of unemployment assistance or student grants or – in some cases – legal recognition of their right to occupy a social centre).” (8)
It was in the particular conditions of urban and semi-urban locations at the very heart of exchange relations, that the risky in-the-state struggle became once again important. Especially in those countries where extractive industries are at the centre of economy and/or where the stark instrumentalisation of state institutions by (g)local agencies of capital through purported neo-colonial mechanisms scuttled the local capacity to self-determine, the “opening” that Chavez’s Venezuela epitomised was significant. This revived the ground for people-oriented nationalist/statist efforts, but with a difference – there was a strong apprehension toward the statist primacy. Of course, the question of state power was posed by the barrios themselves, but with an evident sense that the state itself can never be transformed, but destroyed. The issue was to rein in state power to unleash a constant drive towards collective self-determination, rather than a pre-determined complete self-determination circumscribed within the instituted territoriality. The situation of dual power must be constantly posed, where popular autonomy is distrustful and vigilant towards the state, while class conflicts continually politicise exchange relations at every level and extend the reach of solidarity economy beyond territorial limits. Any slippage in this regard is an advantage to statism which eventually reduces dual power to the duality of the political and the economic – allowing capital to technicise the political recomposition of the working class to bring back exchange relations and capitalist accumulation on track.
The lessons of the so-called twenty-first century socialisms, including the Bolivarian “revolutions” in South America, are once again very elementary that until and unless successes are taken as mere openings for the revolution to be built upon, they are bound to implode. Rosa Luxemburg, a revolutionary for all seasons, reminded us a long time ago, “Either the revolution must advance at a rapid, stormy, resolute tempo, break down all barriers with an iron hand and place its goals ever farther ahead, or it is quite soon thrown backward behind its feeble point of departure and suppressed by counter-revolution. To stand still, to mark time on one spot, to be contented with the first goal it happens to reach, is never possible in revolution.” (9) In this age of the permanent crisis of capitalism and of generalised precarity, we will face numerous such reversals and can only hope to emerge every time a bit wiser.
(1) Georg Lukacs (1968) History and Class Consciousness, Merlin, London, p. 177-78.
(2) Frederick Engels (1847) Draft of a Communist Confession of Faith.
(3) Rosa Luxemburg (Jan, 1919) Order Prevails in Berlin.
(4) Karl Marx [2011 (1872)] “Resolutions of the Meeting held to celebrate the anniversary of the Paris Commune,” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works, People’s Publishing House, New Delhi, p. 287.
(5) J.V Stalin (1947) Coexistence, American-Soviet Cooperation, Atomic Energy, Europe: Interview with Harold Stassen. In For Peaceful Coexistence: Post War Interviews, International Publishers, New York, 1951.
(6) Marcos quoted in Alex Khasnabish (2010) Zapatistas: Rebellion from the Grassroots to the Global, Zed Books, London, p. 83.
(7) Marcos quoted in Alex Khasnabish (2010), p. 64.
(8) John Holloway (2005) Change the world without taking power, Pluto Press, London, p. 235.
(9) Rosa Luxemburg (1918) The Russian Revolution. Available at marxists.org