Thursday, April 14, 2011



I guess that one might consider me fortunate to have lived through three different eras of international revolutionary ferment. The first was the late 60s, early 70s. The next was the late 80s, early 90s with the fall of the Soviet bloc. Now there is the revolutionary wave sweeping the Arab world. In the first I was a full fledged participant. In the second I did my little bit of solidarity work. This time around, aside from signing petitions and going to the occasional demonstration I am very much only a spectator and commentator.

To be honest the first period left me with something of a sour taste in my mouth, but I responded quite differently than the majority of the so-called "new left" did. Behind all the bombastic rhetoric and grandiose fantasies there was far less of the reality of a revolution than the participants imagined. In the country where I live, Canada, most of the "flaming revolutionaries" became simple bureaucrats via either the NDP or even the Liberals. Others took a brief detour through the mindless maze of trying to recreate Leninist fantasy parties. Which, I suppose, just goes to show that they were not too bright in the first place. Myself I became an anarchist.

My own anarchism, however, became increasingly heterodox as I became familiar with not only the anarchist critique of class societies, both western and 'Marxist' but also with a wide range of other "left wing alternatives" and other economic literature that was basically unknown to the simplistic Marxists of that era. From Bernstein and Berle and Means to Max Nomad to Jan Machaijski , to Berle and Means to the transitional ideas of Burnham as he went from Trotskyism to conservatism, I read them all. As the "new left" circled the drain into the cesspool of Maoism and terrorism I became increasingly convinced that "revolution" was impossible in an advanced industrial society while also simultaneously believing that only in such a society could the sort of libertarian socialism I now favoured be built.

As to the "impossibility" of revolution in advanced countries I was wrong, and I guess I should have noticed this much earlier than I did. It's an old truism that, "if something can't go on forever it won't". This applies to countries and economic systems as well as to most other things. It took the revolutions against Communism to make me doubt my earlier doctrine about the "impossibility" of revolution. Especially as at least one of these revolutions occurred in a nuclear armed country with one of the largest if not most effective armies on Earth. No doubt revolution was "impossible" in the Soviet Union from a purely military perspective. Any revolt could very easily be crushed as previous attempts in eastern Europe had amply demonstrated. But what I ignored in my thoughts were some very important things about actual revolutions rather than the cartoonish Marxist ideas I was familiar with. My thinking changed. I also grew to understand that the earlier period of "revolution" ie the 60s/70s that I dismissed as simply grandstanding and third world nationalism was actually a real revolution, ie the completion of the "managerial revolution". Nothing to do with achieving a classless society of course, but definitely a re-division of the spoils amongst different segments of the ruling class.

As I came to understand that the "revolution of our times" was not a libertarian or even a socialist one I came to understand it as an expansion of the power of the managerial class into hitherto "unknown frontiers" of exercising power and "incidentally" making money. Yes, I am of a generation that understands and remembers how sick and how weird such things as the "grief industry" are ! The Third World revolutions of the late 60s/early 70s reproduced the usual Stalinoid bureaucracies, and when the Soviet bloc collapsed their "proletarian heroes" engaged in the same sort of looting that established a new class order in the ex-communist countries. This was one of the things that "sharpened" my own ideas about "revolution". Even in Poland where a large sector of the working class was attached, at least slightly, to the idea of "self-management" the resulting economic order contained no trace of such ideals. What went wrong ?

When all the dust had settled down I came to understand that it was not only that pretty well all modern revolutions served the interests of a managerial class. It was also that NO class system could exist in its pure form. Soviet society depended on the underground economy (capitalist ? but at least "free market") to continue its existence. The great mass of the economy of the modern world is similarly "mixed" having characteristics of both managerial/government control and a free market that is allowed to exist because of necessity. Is such a thing stable ? Personally I don't know having abandoned the religious precepts of Marxist dialectics many decades ago. There is no foreordained march of history, only possibilities and probabilities.

All that being said how do I view the 'Arab Revolutions' ? Unlike some I don't expect any great "libertarian upsurge" from them though I am sure that anarchist groups will be formed in the countries where the revolution has been "successful". The independent actions of the working class will be suppressed as they are today in Egypt.

The Arab revolutions have, however, shaken the forces of international imperialism. As such I personally support them even if I am sure that the resulting polity will be not even close to what I might want. THAT is the message that I would like to leave with people. Support what you can, but don't expect miracles. Revolutions are only possible in the modern world when certain conditions are met. These conditions simultaneously both make the revolution possible and also limit the amount of change that one can expect from such events. In the end I am just as firmly convinced that a libertarian society can only come about gradually, but I also feel that anarchists/libertarian socialists cannot divorce themselves from revolutionary events if they occur as some outcomes are infinitely better than others for a "slow march" to a free society to take place.

In previous posts on this blog I have mentioned how revolutions, being as they are essentially unpredictable movements of large segments of the population, cannot be "planned" or called into being by "revolutionary conspiracy". The efforts of Leninist groupuscles or so-called "insurrectionists" are nothing but magical thinking. The forces behind revolutionary moments are as far outside of the farcical plotting of such groups as is the movement of the planets. Even the "Model-T of Revolutions", the Russian Revolution was not produced by the Bolsheviks. What that party actually did was take advantage of a revolution already in process to achieve a coup-d'etat, and later they created their own managerial rule as the original revolution was defeated.

While revolutions cannot be conjured out of the ground there are, however, certain conditions that are necessary before any such event can occur. First of all there has to be mass disbelief in a given sociopolitical economic system. This doesn't necessarily mean that the majority of people suddenly join the revolutionaries, merely that the majority are more than content to at least "stand aside" in the conflict between the old order and the revolution, having no overwhelming loyalty to the regime. As a matter of fact it is quite rare (though not non-existent) that an actual majority join the revolution from day 1, except perhaps in restricted locales. The fact that revolutions rarely have the participation of a majority, only their passive acquiescence, is already a "snake in Eden" for the Revolution as the active minority must of necessity act boldly in order to avoid defeat, and they thereby act in a relationship of power vis-a-vis the inactive majority. Great dictatorships from many such little acts grow.

As unfavourable as such necessities may be for actually resulting in a truly more equal and free society the problem is not insurmountable. What is insurmountable is the fact that revolutions are inevitably pluralistic. All sorts of people come to oppose the dying regime because of all sorts of different reasons. This has sometimes included those such as Leninist groupuscles or Islamist ideologues in the Arab world who think this pluralism is a Very Bad Thing. Those to whom the whole idea of pluralism is anathema. Whether these people will be "compromisers" as the Egyptian Islamists appear to be or those who hope to advance their own cause by pushing the revolution as far ahead of the majority as possible depends upon circumstance. A lot depends upon the exact level of another condition for revolution...the ruling class must be divided. At least a large segment of this class must be willing to see the old order crumble and either stand passively by or actively help to tear it down. Lacking this the inevitable military realities that led me to first discount the possibility of revolution still hold true.

Revolutions are carried out, at least initially, by minorities. Military necessity requires this minority to carry out actions without any sanction from the majority. Revolutions are inevitably pluralistic and inevitably are open to the influence both of parts of the old ruling class and to would be ruling classes whose rule is often far worse than the old order. Where does this leave those who style themselves anarchists or libertarian socialists ? Many (almost all ?) of those who want to retain what I call the "romance of revolution" respond by imagining a non-pluralistic revolution, one more purely "anarchist". This is maintained by having, against all historical evidence, what may be unbounded faith in the "libertarian instincts of the masses". No doubt revolutions, by their very nature, develop instances of self-management. This is necessary if the revolution is to survive and grow. Or at least if the population is to fed. Yet even in the most fertile historical ground, Spain of the 1930s, the anarchists attracted the participation or approval of only 1/3rd of the population. The Spanish Revolution was inevitably pluralistic, and all appeals to greater militancy simply ignore this inevitable fact of both then and even more now.

This almost inevitable fact of pluralism sets natural limits as to what can be accomplished by a revolution. What this means in actuality is being demonstrated these days in both Tunisia and Egypt. Also in both cases what is usually a military necessity of a successful revolution ie the desertion of at least sizable chunks of the military and police hamstrings that revolution in terms of how far it can go. In other words all these factors together could be summed up as, "the conditions necessary for a revolution to succeed inevitably lead to restricting what it can achieve". Thermidor is the Siamese twin of revolutions, sharing the same vital organs.

How does all this affect what I think now ? I no longer think revolution in an advanced society is impossible, but I am even more convinced that it can never lead to any great gains that last. Such gains can only come about in a slow, patient and "non-heated" atmosphere where social experiments can be tried out for their viability without any "war necessity" looming over them. This doesn't mean that revolutions are a matter of indifference. Such events can hopefully be influenced to result in situations where such experimentation is more possible and easier. Doing this, however, requires a much "finer touch" than the usual libertarian response of "always push harder and harder". In some cases this might be just what is needed. In other cases, such as choosing the wrong allies and dealing with those that we have made, it can be disastrous.


Dick said...

I feel that certain assumptions made by the left are not valid, the politics of the left, this includes anarchist, is just another way to channel political power when the real problem is the power itself. Revolution is a process of conflict and confrontation which leads to sacrifice of our leading cadre but also establishes new social channels for political power to rule again. We need a new radicalism which has consensual process shared cooperative economy with its own culture. Also; here is an interesting publication now translated into english from Italy
Dick Martin

Larry Gambone said...

Some revolutions have opened up spaces where the gradual changes you mention are possible.

But today we are faced with the problem that gradual change has been made almost impossible by the post-1980 wave of reaction. Making positive change impossible has been their goal all along. Just to go back to 1970's social democracy would require a full blown revolution.But I certainly don't see revolution around the corner or even in distant corners. Revolutions might occur in the Arab world or some other so-called underdeveloped countries, but in spite of the poverty the level of alienation is much less among these people than in the developed world. (I cannot see a "nation of suburbs" making a revolution.)

And if neither reform nor revolution are possible this leaves collapse as the other option. Perhaps this is what we should be preparing for...

mollymew said...

No Larry, I don't think "collapse" is on the cards at all but rather a slow gradual slide if you want to be pessimistic. Maybe not you and I, but younger people will gradually see a world where something like driving is the privilege of the privileged and where the USA's empire is quite restricted by other powers. Hopefully not a world, though this is possible, where famine takes the place of birth control.

The "open space" that you speak of is already a reality in most developed economies, and the responses are actually HUGE if one bothers to look.