Continuing the ‘what is the left’ theme of the last few posts, I thought I should talk a bit about ‘revolution’. I identify as part of ‘the revolutionary left’, the fringe of crackpots who hang around making life difficult for the sensible ‘leftists’ trying to sort out immediate problems through state action.
Now, an easy caricature of this sort of position would be that it believes in some sudden, momentous event called ‘the revolution’, and that nothing of importance can be achieved without this, and with it, everything will be achieved. This obviously lends itself to being parodied as a sort of apocalyptic religious cult: at some unspecific future time there will be an explosion and then everything will be different.
I don’t know how many ‘revolutionaries’ have something like this at the back of their minds, but it’s certainly not the most sensible way to understand all this talk of ‘revolution’.
Consider ‘the revolution’ that inaugurated ‘capitalism’? It was a process of, even if we draw the boundaries at their narrowest, 100 or 150 years, that involved more distinct ‘revolutionary’ events than I can count on my fingers and toes. It involved the French revolution, the Napoleonic wars, the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, and that’s just in Europe: it swept the rest of the world in the form of colonialism, and then through independence struggles under vigorously ‘modernist’ leaders – helped along perhaps most powerfully by the revolutions in Russia and China, which brought vast numbers of people into modern sorts of society and economy.
Moreover, beneath all of these overtly political processes, a revolution in sexual, familial, and emotional relations was also developing, which burst into full view in the 20th century and fought just as hard for just as thorough-going a change, though in a different, less open, less sudden, less political way. This involved both a major challenge to male power by women, but also a major challenge to, and arguably substantial conquest of, the power of the old by the young, of parents by children.
I speak of these as being aspects of a single process not just because they occurred close to each other and are in practice associated, but also because they are closely connected in terms of the sort of ideology, the sort of mentality, the sort of attitude to oneself and the world that they involve. They are all, for example, associated with the idea of innovation and criticism, of new methods or companies or ideas challenging and replacing existing ones – this thread can be traced through science, philosophy, politics, economics, old-young relations, male-female relations, etc.
Anyway, so that’s about two centuries of sustained upheaval across the world. Presumably, then, ‘the revolution’ that we aim for will be a similar sort of process – taking, at the least, a century or so to fully establish itself. No doubt it will include numerous particular events meriting the term ‘revolution’, numerous particular insurrections and captures of power. But none of them is likely to accomplish the whole task in one sudden blow.
That’s because the overtly revolutionary moment is more an effect than a cause: it depends on the balance of power being such as to make it possible, and afterwards it has more power, but not all that more – what is gained in the revolution is built on what was prepared prior to it.
To illustrate this, observe Fig 1. It shows the change in three quantities over time – with the time involved being anywhere from a decade to a century (in the latter case, this should be imagined as the result of averaging over and smoothing out variations in different countries).
The blue line represents the power of the exploited class – if it’s a socialist revolution we’re talking about this would be the proletariat, however specified. This fluctuates at a low level for a while (during the normal times of capitalism) but at a certain point grows and doesn’t decline, instead hitting a feedback loop such that it rapidly increases. This is the overt ‘revolution’, with the fighting in the streets and so forth, after which the rapid seizure of power becomes the slower consolidation of power, and eventually levelling off at ‘100%’, i.e. everyone is proletarian, socialism is up and running, there are no other classes, i.e. there are no classes at all.
The turquoise line represents the degree of class conflict: it fluctuates, hits a very high peak during the revolution, and then declines to zero when there are no classes. The green line represents how well the system is functioning and how well-off people are in general. This actually falls substantially during the revolution, since all that conflict disrupts any efficiency in the economy (though of course there can be many other forms of conflict that have similar effects), but then recovers gradually as the new society releases its potential.
So what does a ‘revolutionary’ approach to left-wing politics involve? It doesn’t have to mean trying to ‘make a revolution’ (Che Guevara famously said that it had to, but I don’t think the outcome of his activities is too good a recommendation for such a motto). Rather, I would say it means trying to raise the blue line as much as possible – aiming not only to make people better off in the here and now (though that shouldn’t be neglected) but also trying to strengthen people, give people more power to oppose and contest those forces that maintain the status quo (such as the state, employers, religions, etc.) and accepting the confrontations that this leads to.
This differs from a ‘non-revolutionary’ approach to left-wing politics, which generally seeks to raise the green line steadily, while keeping the turquoise line low (because if it gets too high, the green line will fall). This means they tend to adopt methods that raise the green line while keeping the blue line low, or lowering it further.
But it also, I would argue, differs from an approach which seeks to raise the turquoise line even at the expense of the blue line, which usually involves hitching the exploited to the bandwagon of some confrontational organisation that wants to lead them.
This can lead to the pattern shown in Fig. 2: at the critical moment, under the pressure of/using the excuse of, the vast rise in conflict, measures are taken that hold back the strength of the exploited class, and even after the battle has been ‘won’, power is consolidated at their expense, with a new leadership in charge. Prosperity under this new leadership may increase, or decrease, or both. Sometimes it leads to the largest famine in human history.
So between the two (state-oriented) options of reformism and revolution-betraying revolutionaries, whose errors can be summarised as focusing too much on the green line and the turquoise line respectively, the best characterisation I can give of a genuinely ‘revolutionary’ approach would be a focus on the blue line, even where this cuts against the green and/or turquoise lines – a focus on building the independent power of the oppressed and exploited, so as to allow them to force concessions out on their own terms and not receive them handed down on the terms of others.