By Nick Brown
Against Abstract Explanations, Metaphysics, Arrogance, and Platitudes
Most explanations of what it would take for revolution to occur in the US are horribly inadequate. Generally, they propose a static notion of the requirements for revolution: typically the creation of a revolutionary party or initiation of a people’s war.
In the first instance, that of championing the creation of a party, the supposed prerequisite for revolution is proposed in a metaphysical manner. The assumption must be held that all existing or past parties either a) didn’t really exist as such or b) are somehow wildly insufficient for the task of revolution. In either case, those participating in such efforts are dismissed as either lacking conviction or skill. To be blunt, this amounts to a kind of deluded arrogance, and the presupposition is made that today’s generation of radicals is somehow better skilled, has greater dedication, or is qualitatively more knowledgeable than previous generations.
As for the development of a people’s war being necessary for revolution, this amounts to a form of linguistic tautology. Revolution, it is stated, is necessary for revolution [note].
As a final explanation, some contrive that a ‘shift in consciousness’ is necessary for revolution. This is plainly obvious, yet no explanation is given as to how such a shift in consciousness could be occurred, save the route of basic advocacy. This latter explanation of the requisites for revolution implies a sort of passivity, i.e., awaiting a shift of consciousness, rather than proactive action toward shifting consciousness through struggles that lend themselves toward revolutionary ends.
A Sociological Approach
In seeking out the requisites of revolution, it it useful to move away from abstracted notions like ‘Bolshevised party,’ ‘people’s war,’ etc. The New Communist Movement in the US, UK, and Canada was riddled with debates over the precise meaning of such terms, and it did little to advance revolution in these areas. It might, however, be useful to seek out the objective universal features of revolutions as they have existed throughout history.
In the book ‘Taking Power,’ John Foran outlines five interrelated factors which all revolutions (with slight exception) have shared. These include: dependent development (that is, a relationship to imperialism which makes an entire country or region subject to a precarious economic situation); an economic downturn, often preceded by a period of economic expansion; increasing isolation of a political-economic ruling elite, often aggravated through years or decades of nepotism and exclusionary rule; the development of a heterogeneous political culture of opposition, i.e., the widespread multifaceted movement of peoples rejecting and seeking an alternative to existing hegemony; and a world-systemic opening in which the ruling elite loses external support from foreign sponsors. Additionally, in order for a revolution to develop as such (and in order for it to not devolve into a completely chaotic situation in which ruling-class forces can reassert control), a leading center (often a party or nuclei of new forms and personnel of rule) must develop within the political culture of opposition. That is, a reasonably sizable, organized, and disciplined group must win considerable support or at least consent to situate itself as a leadership of the ongoing continuation of civil, public, and economic life.
Ignoring for the moment the notion of dependent development, we can rate and judge the likelihood of the other conditions within US society, thus determining in a strategic manner the best means to push toward revolution in the US.
An aging infrastructure, the increasing economic toll brought on by lifestyle- and pollution-related health problems, the development of competing sections of monopoly capital in Europe and Asia, and the draining of economic surplus into growing parasitic sectors of the economy such as finance and security: for the US, there is really only one direction for the economy to head over the long-term – down. While this itself might not lead to the development of other factors of revolution, such as the isolation of the ruling elite or the development of a political culture of opposition, it can’t hurt.
Increasingly in the US, there is a clear trend toward economic and social polarization. Members of the so-called middle class are either being swept into the ruling economic elite or pushed down into conditions which much more closely resemble the lower working and lumpen classes (with some in-between usually found in tertiary sectors such as sales and security). Again, while this hardly guarantees anything else, it should make the development of further requisite conditions easier.
Increasingly in the US, there is disaffection from the ruling elite, both from the right (congealed politically into various libertarian and white supremacist groups) and left (represented by the growing number of protests against the actualities of decrepit imperialism). Unfortunately, this disaffection of the left goes beyond ‘hetreogenous.’ Instead, it is both isolated and fragmented. Any revolutionary situation would require a political culture of opposition (i.e., other institutions and subjective forces) that is both more broadly mobilized and more developed in its challenge to the existing systems of rule. In general, imperialism still operates in a hegemonic manner. The basic supporting notions such as the worship of wealth and elite status are still very much at play. For any revolutionary situation to develop in the US, greater effort must be undertaken to shatter these underlying notions which ultimately buttress the existing systems of rule.
Similarly, in the political culture of opposition which does exist in the US, the dominant trend is toward metaphysical idealism – the rejection of violence and state power as legitimate means of pursuing subordinated class interests. For any revolutionary situation to develop, a significant section of the nominal left must be convinced of the futility of moralism and hand-waving while being moved to see the efficacy of actual revolution. Too much of what passes for the left amounts to self-disempowerment via rejecting revolutionary struggle in favor of a liberal-anarchist dismissal of the need to actually overthrow (through necessarily coercive means) the existing ruling class.
A world systemic opening is perhaps the most difficult condition to achieve. Given that in nearly every country around the world, ruling political regimes are dependent on sponsorship from US, or their economic vitality is dependent on stability in the US, none would go out of their way to support a revolutionary situation. However, such world-systemic openings rarely develop independently of other requisite conditions. If, for example, these others conditions were present, it is conceivable that foreign governments would distance themselves from the US government simply to reassert some form of normalcy through the reestablishment of some form of stable rule in the US. Thus, in the context of a wide-scale revolutionary movement (in which the US ruling elite is increasingly isolated and a political culture of opposition is a realistic contender for power), it is conceivable that a world-system opening could be achieved. In such a case, foreign governments would increasingly refuse to cooperate with the US state in asserting control over its home territory.
Gramsci’s Explanation Regarding The Nature Of The State
In discussing the prospective of revolution in Italy and central Europe, Antonio Gramsci noted that the state is not simply the ‘armed body of men’ which collectively protects the social and economic relations of capitalism. Instead, the state includes all of the culture and social apparatuses which support capitalism’s economic life. In his view, the state can be compartmentalized into two sections. The first, the government, police, and military, are the front line defenders of capitalism. The second, the cultural and social norms of a given society, forms its rear-area logistical and support networks. Accordingly, no revolutionary movement can succeed without combating the ruling-class state in both arenas. In fact, the contest against the social and cultural superstructure of capitalism is often the foremost task, one which is necessary for any successful frontal attack against capitalism.
In this respect, in order for any revolution in the US to occur, a concerted and successful campaign against the cultural apparatuses of capitalist rule is a necessarily prerequisite to any armed campaign. The legitimacy of class rule and its naturalized effects must be called into question, not simply by hard-core cadre of radical organizations, but by the oppressed and marginal sections of society at large. In doing so, various middle forces must be won over and convinced of the efficacy of the need to overthrow capitalism in toto, and this conviction must be translated into the realization of the necessity of armed struggle to achieve such an end.
Limited Revolution Is Better Than No Revolution
It is entirely possible that a revolution, rather than being achieved throughout the entirety of the US, might only be achieved in specific regions. In this case, the US ruling class, in an effort to concentrate its forces in more strategically significant areas and retain some degree of continued existence, might allow for the success of revolution within its internal weak-links. Such a situation could only come about in a period of great crisis for the ruling class and could only tolerated as a temporary measure prior to reactionary regroupment and reassertion of control. Nonetheless, it is not outside the realm of possibility that a revolution could occur in isolated regions such as the northern Plains, the Southwest, Appalachia, Hawai’i, or large areas in the Black Belt South. Such a revolution that covers only a part of the current territorial body of the US, were it to succeed, would greatly heighten social contradictions and conflicts throughout the whole country, inspiring the mobilization of various class forces throughout all other regions. Furthermore, the long term success of such a revolution would be dependent, in great part, on the ability to mobilize a later revolution throughout other portions of the country.
In the case of such a revolution in part of the US, a similar set of conditional prerequisites (as described in the preceding parts of this essay) would need to be implemented, with the exception that a world-systemic opening would occur internally within the US.
The Strategic Significance Of Revolution In The US
Given the manner in which the US acts as a citadel of reaction throughout the world, revolution in the US is of strategic importance. Without the sponsorship of the US ruling class, various subordinate ruling elites throughout the world would be more easily combated and overthrown.
Without resorting to the notion that revolution could be globally imposed in a top-down manner by newly-dominant radical forces in the US, it is plain to note that any revolutionary situation in the US would swing the balance of power throughout the world into the hands of oppressed peoples. Moreover, given the hegemonic role of the United States in the superstructure of the world-economy, i.e. the manner in which it is idealized throughout the world, any revolutionary situation in the US would shatter such illusions, thus making the construction of oppositional political cultures much easier in various parts of the world. Without the myth of social peace in the US so firmly in place, the existing conflict between classes in other countries would become that much more apparent and tangible.
While throughout the 20th century, various Third World countries had limited success in overthrowing local ruling elites, total liberation has been elusive, in large part due to ongoing pressures from imperialism. Thus, for the success of any revolution to be truly durable, it must, sooner or later, conquer the ruling classes at the centers of the imperialist world-economy. In this manner revolutionary struggles in the centers of world imperialism, in the US and elsewhere, are of unmatched significance.
[note]: While I understand that proponents of ‘the universality of protracted people’s war’ have a more complicated line than what is presented here, the choice of wording of a theory is insufficient since it specifically refers to universal features of revolution, and not the universal features of people’s war (as they have developed in Third World, largely rural areas) specifically.