What’s a Revolutionary? What is the Left?

In yesterday’s post, I talked about the mainstream left and what defines it, what the familiar divide between these two gangs of politicians and their various hangers-on is all about.

But there’s a similar divide within that so-called ‘left’, a fairly familiar one between two sorts of statists. On the one hand, there’s those who put their hopes in the existing state, and try to find accomodation with it in various ways. On the other hand, there’s those who think this is hopeless, and want to replace that state with a new and completely different ‘revolutionary state’.

One suggests that the existing state is the legitimate expression of what ‘the electorate’ wants, the other suggests that their new-and-improved state will be the legitimate expression of what ‘the revolutionary proletariat’ wants.

The classic examples are the 2nd International, who abandoned internationalism in 1914 and joyously threw workers into the trenches to die, and the 3rd International, full of Bolsheviks who could prove their committment to communism by saying “look at our red flag! it’s positively dripping with the blood of workers!”

I think, though, that the pattern extends beyond the case of Leninists vs. social democrats. One prominent example is the ‘porn wars’, between sex-positive feminists and radical feminists. In both cases, the movement reached a high point of activity (e.g. the Paris Commune, the womens’ liberation movement) and then declined as matters settled down, and part of this decline was an acrimonious split between one side moderating their demands and becoming more appealing to and less hostile to ‘the establishment’ (social democrats/sex-positive feminists) and the other side rigidifying their demands and accusing the other side of ‘selling out’ and ‘capitulating’ (Leninists/’radfems’). In both cases the label that had previously applied to the most radical section of the movement (‘communist’/’radical feminist’) came to be associated with one side, and explicitly rejected by the other.

And in both cases, there were on either side plenty of sincere and intelligent people, but shading imperceptibly into caricatures, barely distinguishable from either their liberal opponents (‘new labour’ and ‘burlesque is feminist!’), or sharing worrying features with the far right (Stalinist vs. Fascist totalitarianism, radfem vs. conservative moralising). So what’s behind this phenomenon?

For the average frustrated radical, the defense mechanism against the unhappiness of seeing suffering and injustice has to be a determination to solve it – most other defense mechanisms, which are perhaps more common, have been given up, such as 1) not noticing and being apathetic and apolitical, 2) not caring and being a cynical bastard, 3) justifying it as natural and necessary and being right-wing.

As I’ve argued before, I think that this determination to do away with injustice is partly about personal power – to do away with injustice, not simply that it be done away with by someone. The suffering that’s shared by empathy is taken up into a narrative of fighting and triumph so that it generates a ‘pay-off’, a kick of power-gratification to make you feel better. If this didn’t happen, people would be much less likely to be ‘radicals’ in the first place, because as a psychological structure it would offer no reward, no positive attraction.

Note that this isn’t to say that people are ‘selfish’ – it’s simply to state the obvious truism that when people desire the happiness of others, that becomes one of their desires, and tends to get caught up in the web of their psychology and its ‘economy’ of pleasures and pains. The result is an uneasy mixture of self-affirmation and self-abnegation: the former makes it a satisfying, ego-gratifying drive, a desire to be a revolutionary hero or some such, and the latter differentiates it from merely ‘I will defeat the evil slave-empire by enslaving its inhabitants’, makes it a sincere desire to end oppression and get the oppressed their freedom, which they might well use to disagree with you or tell you to go home.

Anyway, the point I’m getting to is that I think we can understand the opposition between ‘revolutionary’ and ‘reformist’ statists as reflecting two basic options for this drive. Because of course, the drive needs to find some prosective route by which injustice will actually be defeated.

The ideal route would be through a real revolution, a real movement where enough people, with enough awareness and organisation, were in movement that as a whole, they could both let each member be a hero, and also keep each member in check, balancing the self-affirming and the self-negating elements.

But most of the time such a movement is not around anywhere. What there is around is the state, and more broadly ‘the status quo’, the existing system, which offers the power and force needed to make changes (the self-affirming side) but at a major price: it simultaneously imposes a very high level of ‘self-abnegation’, because you have to subordinate your desire to make changes to every hindrance, law, vested interest, inflexible hierarchy, etc. – and yet ‘diverts’ that to the wrong end.

I say ‘diverts’ because the point of this self-abnegation is that I, the would-be revolutionary, should subordinate my will to that of others, in particular of those actually getting in the neck from stato-patricapitalo-racism, so as not to become another tyrant. But the state subordinates my will not to this but to itself, and actually requires me to participate, with an air of self-denial, in oppression and the locking up and the bombing.

But that at least is one way. It also often offers a fairly comfortable and accepted life. So that tends to get plenty of takers. What’s the alternative? Without either turning to the existing state, or having a revolutionary movement to keep individual megalomania in check, the route that our drive takes is instead to say ‘the state and the existing system are rotten! I will do away with them and I will end injustice!’, a route which is both frustrating (because 99% of the time you don’t, you acheive very little) and more worryingly doesn’t offer the ‘discipline’ of reality, of other people to limit you and keep you from going off the rails.

Now, if your committment to self-abnegation is stronger than that to self-affirmation (in particular, as manifested in caring more about whether you make things worse than about whether you make things better), you will probably end up closing up or scaling down the whole ‘I am a radical’ psychic structure, and drifting along without really doing much.

But if it’s the other way round, you end up with an overgrown and frustrated ego flapping around, which is potentially dangerous. One result is the spectrum of various sorts of thrill-seeking and violence, leading from just going along to have a ruckus with the cops of an evening, to vandalism and direct action, to targetted assassinations, and eventually up to bombing campaigns and mass murder.

I don’t want to say that everyone who gets into any of this stuff is doing so for these reasons, because sometimes these do make sense and are strategically appropriate (well, not the mass murder part). I’m just saying that there is this sort of psychology that gives an independent push along this spectrum that’s independent of how smart an idea it really is.

Potentially more dangerous is when this unstable ego-drive takes a more organised form, emphasising not the heroic spontaneity of hurling a petrol bomb but the tight discipline of an organised party. And sometimes, worst of all, such a party will ride a wave of popular rebellion and actually take power.

The process rather resembles someone trying to ride a horse (with the intention of ‘guiding it’), and holding on by the neck. This impedes the animal from being able to breathe, and if it’s already weak, it’ll probably start thrashing about, trying to escape – which the rider is psychologically bound to interpret as indicating its unsteadiness and greater need to be ‘guided’, and so to tighten their grip to avoid falling off. The eventual result is, of course, someone straddling a dead horse and screaming at it to keep galloping.

In both this case, and the case of the accomodating reformist, the state acquires importance as a result of the weakness of genuine revolutionary force – and then in turn feeds into that weakness.

Why must we be moderate and accept the gouging compromises of parliamentary politics? Because there’s no prospect of anything more serious happening – and some of us are quite glad of that, because look at what revolutions lead to – Bolshevik dictatorship!

Why must we establish the secret police and impose harsh discipline on the workers? Because our position is so fragile, so easily defeated, that if we don’t things will fall apart – and some of us are quite glad of that, because at what democracy leads to – parliamentary betrayals!

The state plays the same role for both: the squarer of circles. In a situation where the forces and conditions for revolution do not exist (perhaps because you’ve already helped do them in), you’re not going to get revolution. It’s sad but it’s true. And when ‘the state’, either an actual one or a hypothetical one, promises that you might, that a revolution might be ‘made’, it’s just lying, just like it lies about most other things.

This isn’t a very inspiring or heartening idea. But I think it follows from appreciating just how incredible is our goal. When we say ‘revolution’, we don’t just mean any revolution (there have been plenty of those, and look where they’ve got us). We mean a process that will decisively break the hold of oppression on humanity – that is, which will do something which thousands of previous revolutions have failed to do.

We’re talking about short-circuiting a system which is millenia old and which conditions every part of our lives. We’re all a little bit crazy even for imagining such a thing.

2 Responses to “What’s a Revolutionary? What is the Left?”

  1. Pasha Says:

    Youre absolutely correct in that a revolution is something that will happen spontaneously and will end up wherever it is going. Regarding, of course, the strengths of the internal players. This was evident in Russia finally in 1917 and ended with the triumph of the Bolsheviks and eventually derailed by Stalin.

    As long as there are states, as you pointed out, the assumption has to be that on some level it is what the electorate want.

    So what is to be done?

    The role of the left is to bring about Utopia. But first we must define that. I disagree that there needs be a split between reformers and revolutionaries. Marx said that it comes by revolution not by degree, but perhaps that is a great, but not universal truth. Perhaps utopia can come through reform. It is still the role of the left to DRAG the issues out and see that they are addressed.

    We need not apologise for the end we want. Although I dont think we know what that end is. If we understood the destination, we could perhaps bring it about. But in the mean time, we must work to bring reform about in the right direction and fight off the impulse to reaction and fascism.

    Fascism can be arrived at through right wing “reform” or reaction and that is certainly a threat we must help the people defend themselves from.

    You are almost addressing the phenomenon of creating a new elite to replace the old party, that is a huge threat. Perhaps reform is a way to ensure we are all just labourers tugging the ropes together and there need not be a leader, spokesman, foreman to run the show. The show will, by its nature end up at its destination.

    Great thoughts to ponder! Thanks



  2. Emperor Penguin Says:

    ‘We’re talking about short-circuiting a system which is millenia old and which conditions every part of our lives. We’re all a little bit crazy even for imagining such a thing.’

    Just glad to see you noticed. I hope finals went ok.

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