Is the Revolution Going to Come?

The flag is black and red for anarcho-syndicalism, despite the black-and-white photo

It occurred to me that I’ve never directly discussed the issue of grand historical expectations – in particular, the expectation, widespread on the hard left, that sooner or later there will be a worldwide social convulsion of some sort in which, over however long and protactred a period, power structures will be dismantled, property will be socialised, freedom may or may not ring, and rule will be replaced with self-rule.

And I thought that the day after Mayday would be a good opportunity to do so, and in particular to confront the fact that much of the time, this idea – what I will call the Final Revolution Thesis – seems much more like an article of faith than a sober historical judgement.

Now it would be silly of me to deny the ways in which it does function as an ‘article of faith’. Like any strongly-held belief, it plays a role in a psychic economy, it has an emotional significance. That’s consistent either with it being false or with it being true. So let’s put that aside.

Let’s also put aside the question of whether such a revolution would be desirable – whether anarchist communism is a good idea, and in most people’s interests. I think it is, and I’m going to assume that in what follows.

We might flip the question around and ask: if a certain arrangement is to most people’s advantage, how can society operate by any other? If statist capitalism,  slave-owning patriarchy, feudal theocracy, corporate badism, etc, are so bad, how did they exist for centuries? What stops people’s collective interests determining society?

The two answers seem to me to be individual irrationality and collective irrationality, i.e. disorganisation. Both of these are actively created by those classes and groups who benefit from these arrangements. On the first note, every society generates a mainstream of opinion that accepts that societies’ essential structures as legitimate. On the second, every society strives, wherever possible, to fight and undermine organisation on the part of oppressed classes. Union-bashing is the most obvious example, but so is the confinement of women in houses. Dominant groups are almost always more organised and co-ordinated.

I know it sounds rather cliché to say that most of the world’s people are living in ‘false consciousness’ (weird phrase) and that this is all that stops them from rising ‘up’. But I don’t really see an alternative, if we take as premises that 1) rising in said direction would be to most people’s advantage, and 2) if everyone with an interest in such a rising took part, it would be essentially irresistable.

So the conclusion I seem to be led to, cliché as it is, is that some combination of misunderstanding and disorganisation are necessary conditions for the persistence of injustice. I then ask myself; what are the long-term prospects for misunderstanding and disorganisation? And on a long view, they both seem to be declining.

Obviously it’s possible to be stupidly optimistic, or to falsely idealise our current culture as so much more ‘enlightened’ than all previous ones. Certainly there are idocies which are distinctively new. But it just seems implausible to me to deny, for example, that the world’s average person nowadays – literate, with internet access, having absorbed an awareness of cultural diversity and historical change, having at least encountered the essential scientific ideas of our time, has a better intellectual understanding of things, as a whole, than the world’s average person a hundred or two hundred years ago.

That organisation is increasing is both more obvious and perhaps more important. As people emerge from every form of isolation – rural isolation, national isolation, or isolation inside a household – they constantly encounter more and more of each other, and are forced to adapt to modern technologies of transport and communication. As a result, mass movements, mass sharing of experiences, mass organisation, are all possible now in ways that they were not possible in the past.

This doesn’t mean that the revolution is imminent. I imagine it will probably occur after I am dead. But it means that in the long run, I think that capitalism, patriarchy, statism, and assorted evils rest on a foundation that is being undermined.

We should remember that just belief in revolution has an emotional and psychological weight associated with it, so too does despair of revolution. Our judgements – our feelings – of what’s ‘possible’ and ‘impossible’ are extremely malleable, it seems to me: they reflect the dominant theme of our experience, so that if something involves contradicting the shared feature of all our life experiences, it will feel ‘impossible’, ‘unreal’. But such things happen. Most descriptions of the present would sound ‘unreal’ to someone from the past.

To say a brief word about Marx. Marx, like the typical communist, anticipated an imminent revolution. That anticipation was not fulfilled. On the other hand, most of the reasoning he used is, I think, still sound. The proletariat expands – recently it has now become the world’s majority class for the first time. The proletariat occupies the central place in production – by definition, insofar as production is capitalistic. The proletariat becomes ever more organised and concentrated – indeed, we have recently also seen a majority of the world’s population living in cities. And the proletariat’s interests lie opposed to those of capital and to those of dominating groups per se.

Where I think Marx was incautious was in assuming that the proletariat that he saw was the final and mature form of that proletariat. With a bit more historical hindsight we might suggest that proletarianisation is still ongoing; that we have not yet seen the emergence of the kind of dispossessed class that will inaugurate anarchist communism.

The first aspect of this is the proletarianisation of women, the transformation of that majority of humanity who had previously occupied a position analogous to serfdom – trading freedom for security in the ‘family’ of whatever structure – into a mobile and dynamic class of individuals both free and dispossessed. The primary acheivement, arguably, of the feminist movement up to this point has been not so much the liberation of women as their proletarianisation. And since most positions of power and privilege are occupied by men, the revolutionary proletariat of the future, we might surmise, is likely to be mainly female.

The second aspect is the globalisation of capitalism, which makes the urban proletariat into a global, rather than a European and North American, phenomenon. As I said, this is advancing full strength.

But connected with this, I think, is the still-largely-future need to make a global proletariat into an international one – which is not simply present across the world, but which co-operates across the world, and is organised across national boundaries, in the same way that the International Workingmen’s Associations on the the 19th century attempted (and failed, in WWI). This will be forced onto the proletariat through the international organisation of capital: IMF, UN, WTO, MNCs, out-sourcing, intelligence-sharing, etc.

How will this international organisation come about? It seems not implausible to suggest that 1) migrants will be an important part of it – already there are entire ‘proletariats’ whose economic position is transnational, working in one country so as to send remittances to their families in another country; 2) atheism and religion will be a major issue: the international co-operation will sit uneasily with fervent belief in one’s own special brand of mythology – though it will also sit uneasily with having to accept someone else’s own special brand of realism, 3) the power-psychology of militarism and patriotism will need to be undermined, more successfully than was done in the 19th century. For this, the connection with feminism, which at least offers a route into understanding power-psychology, may be significant.

None of these processes is complete yet, and from this I conclude that ‘the revolution’ may well be a long way off yet. That’s not to say it’s impossible now, just unlikely.

As a final note, it might be worth asking why revolution is necessary. Why can justice not be acheived by a gradual and consensual process? And the thing is, it could – in an anarchist communist society. In a society where people have roughly equal power, no privileged minority could manipulate the various organs of society to defend their interests. In a society that proceeds by consent instead of coercion, no group with new ideas can be repressed or prevented from putting them into practice. But we do not yet live in such a society (also known as: rational society, civilised society, adult society).

That’s why I speak of the ‘final’ revolution. It’s not that everything will be happy and perfect afterwards. People will no doubt find ways to make themselves miserable in anarchist communism. But as individuals and as groups, they will be able to resolve those problems in a sensible, consensual, constructive way. Until then, we inhabit a society controlled by an elite and managed through force. Such a coercive elite, trained to rule and weeded out if they show insufficient desire to rule, will not surrender all possibility of ruling unless forced to. That need not mean bloodshed; but it means at least the threat of it – that it be made clear that attempts to forcibly govern people will be forcibly resisted.

5 Responses to “Is the Revolution Going to Come?”

  1. Duncan Says:

    Marx, like the typical communist, anticipated an imminent revolution.

    There was a very good reason why he thought this though. In the 19th century revolutions, for arguments sake the overthrowal of the government by non-constitutional means, happened all the time.

    If we follow Marx and look at France, the nation he studies in his major works on historical materialism, then we can see that during his lifetime and for some decades previously revolution was the normal method by which governments changed. Between the French Revolution in 1789 and the founding of the Third Republic in 1871 no regime in France lasts more than 20 years and most have a much more brief lifespan.

    Since the Third Republic was largely a compromise between the dominant royalist factions, who couldn’t agree on who was the rightful monarch, Marx and most other contemporary commentators believed it would be equally temporary and the regular cycle of revolutions would continue.

    In fact, in one of histories little ironies, the republic set up by monarchists has so far proved the most durable of all the French republics from 1789 to date.

  2. Dan | thesamovar Says:

    Very interesting stuff Alderson.

    What stops people’s collective interests determining society?

    I think your answer of irrationality, individual and collective, gets most of the way there, but there might be one other aspect. Presumably, you know the prisoner’s dilemma – a situation with two participants who have perfect information and rationality but do not mutually cooperate even though it would be better for them to do so. Now the prisoner’s dilemma is a much over-rated thought experiment, and in many, many cases it is not a reasonable model of how people actually behave. But there are some situations where it captures something real about the situation, or at least something like the prisoner’s dilemma does so (perhaps a more complicated version of it). The essential insight of the prisoner’s dilemma is that what determines how people behave and how the system in which they are living evolves can be highly determined in counterproductive ways by the institutional arrangements of the system.

    When you talk about collective irrationality, perhaps you’re getting at something like this. Take organisation: you can get over prisoner’s dilemma type problems by creating organisations (unions for example). But one could imagine that there are subtler effects of a similar sort to the prisoner’s dilemma that aren’t addressed by this. Jumping up one level, we might ask: why haven’t these forms of organisation been created yet, even though the technology and understanding necessary for such a thing is better than it has ever been before? Why was it that the International Workingmen’s Associations came much closer to this than we are today, even though it was much more difficult to organise such a thing then as compared to now? Perhaps there is some systematic effect due to the institutional arrangements as they are now that stops such organisations from forming. If so, we would need to understand what they were, and jump up to the next level and address those.

    I share your point of view that as our ability to communicate, organise and understand the world gets better, surely this must have a progressive political effect. I also share your opinion that this will take much longer than hopeful revolutionaries imagine. An unfortunate consequence of that is that it will probably be too late by then, thanks to global warming (but that shouldn’t stop us from trying of course).

    As a final note, it might be worth asking why revolution is necessary. Why can justice not be acheived by a gradual and consensual process?

    There’s an issue here that is potentially confusing. I would say that a change from a capitalist society to one that wasn’t capitalist would be by definition revolutionary. However, it could be consensual in principle. In practice, at the moment it wouldn’t be but if we’re imagining this change happening 100-200 years from now, who is to say? Suppose for example that some country like Venezuela, experimenting with things like worker ownership, workplace democracy, participatory forms of politics and so forth, became much more economically successful than a capitalist society. This would put a lot of pressure to introduce some of these things into capitalist economies, and they could be gradually transformed to a point where a relatively peaceful, gradual and largely consensual revolution could occur.

    In general, non-violent reform can occur when the risks to the elites of maintaining an exploitative status quo are higher than the costs to them of the reform. The threat of revolutionary action is the risk, the loss of relative levels of wealth and power is the cost. Elites have shown themselves to be flexible about this sort of thing in the past: witness the various extensions of the right to vote over time. Such change is necessarily gradual because each reform has to be fairly small in order that the cost is less than the risk.

  3. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Yeah, I would call lack of organisation in prisoner’s dilemma cases a type of collective irrationality. Broadly speaking revolution is a prisoners dilemma, I suppose: we’re each better off if someone else overthrows authority while we stay safe, and worst off if we try to overthrow authority on our own and get smacked down. Without organisation, we all obey and thus end up with the continuation of authority.

    “Jumping up one level, we might ask: why haven’t these forms of organisation been created yet”
    I suppose a combination of the hold of ideas which work against revolution – in particular, the fact that, as I said, if we never experience a revolution it is always liable to seem, not entirely without justification, like a silly idea, an impossibility. Not to mention the criss-crossing of different conflicts, some real, some false, often undermining each other.

    “Why was it that the International Workingmen’s Associations came much closer to this than we are today”
    I think there’s maybe two issues here. One is that at that time the issue itself was more focused on Europe and North America, and the development of global capitalism has changed that. The other is that, I think, in the initial phase of industrial capitalism it was easier to rebel against it, because it was newer, stranger, less polished. As Duncan said, French-and-other-bourgeois revolutions were still fresh in everyone’s mind. There may thus be a U-shaped curve of militancy.

    “some country like Venezuela, experimenting with things like worker ownership, workplace democracy, participatory forms of politics and so forth, became much more economically successful than a capitalist society”
    I think that movements like the Venezuelan, even if they completed their trajectory and radicalised to the extent of entirely abolishing a private market economy, would replicate many of its features – control and management by state functionaries in place of private owners. The extent to which it didn’t would depend on the autonomous movement and activity of the working class, and the congruence of interests between the ‘progressive’ state and the working class is in turn dependent on the presence of a common enemy.

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