Proletarian Revolution versus The Real Movement of Society: A reply to Siddiq

by Jehu

revolutionA comment by Siddiq on my blog argues that I am off-base by suggesting there is no need whatsoever for a conscious revolutionary subject. I want to take a moment to respond and explain my apparent difference with value critique writers like Robert Kurz.

In contradiction to value critique theorists like Kurz, I assume the collapse of capitalism and emergence of communism are one and the same event. Disputing this opinion, the commenter writes,

“First hand experience, and historical precedent, leads me to agree with Kurz that there is no guarantee that capitalist collapse will lead to some sort of emancipation.”

His argument is based on his direct experience in Zimbabwe in the aftermath of its recent crisis, where he observed economic crisis led not to a post-capitalist order, but to

“grassroots capitalism, in which the entire population hustled to survive by any means PERMITTED, most of which involved entrepreneurship and trading.”

I take this to mean, in the aftermath of the crisis, people tried to reconstruct their lives on the basis of barter relations. This is not at all unusual; as the commenter points out, evidence of this sort of thing can be found in any number of countries hit by an economic catastrophe. I can personally attest to seeing just this sort of behavior in the aftermath of the Argentine crisis with my own eyes. So I can vouch for the general view expressed in the comment, if not to the specifics in the case of Zimbabwe.

So what is the takeaway from these sorts of experiences with economic crisis and their political impact?

In the aftermath of a disaster, whether natural or man-made, the first thing people try to do is to reconstruct their lives to what it was before the disaster. People will actually try to reconstruct their lives on a hillside of a volcano after it has killed hundreds or even thousands. As I have observed before, no one in the middle of Hurricane Katrina thought, “Well, this is my opportunity to move to Paris and become an artist.”

Moreover, we have the all-time grandaddy of crises to back up this opinion: After the onset of the Great Depression, contrary to the expectations of many communists, the collapse of the economy in countless countries led not to socialism but to fascism.

Why was this?

I would argue the answer is simple: the first thing one does after losing one’s job is to try to find another job. This will happen even if, as in Germany in 1930 or the US in 2009, tens of millions lose their jobs right along with you. It really is the way we react to events like this and nothing can be done about it. So, all the predictions that economic crisis necessarily lead to a socialist revolution turned out not only to be false, but historically demonstrated as false.

When given the opportunity, workers vote for the demagogues who promise to restore their old lives, not someone who urges them to look for a new way to organize society.

The fact that in the aftermath of a crisis the people of Zimbabwe “hustled with all their might to reconstitute this grossly negligent” state of affairs has profound implications for what we imagine a transition from capitalism to communism will look like. It means that in all likelihood, the entire expectation of a crisis triggering a revolutionary event is not only wrong, but horribly wrong.

Which is to say, the entire premise of Marxist political activity for 100 years has been a silly waste of time.

As the commenter suggests, we need “a text addressing the relation between crisis and revolution”. In particular, Marxists have never forthrightly acknowledged the fundamental contradiction between their predictions and the actual way the Great Depression actually played out. Despite the results of that unprecedented crisis, Marxists still cling to faint (and daily growing fainter) hope some even greater economic catastrophe will trigger the much hoped for revolution.

I do not find it the least bit surprising that an astute observer like Robert Kurz responded to this irrational hope with deep skepticism. The question at hand is why don’t I as well?

For one simple reason: in my opinion, crisis does not lead to a revolution, the revolution leads to crisis and collapse of capitalism. Most Marxists conceive of revolution in the form of a political revolution, as occurred in France in 1789 or Russia in 1917. Actually, this sort of revolution is not what Marx had in mind when he spoke of the real movement of society.

In the social revolution Marx had in mind, the revolution is a material transformation of all existing relations within society. It is, by definition, an unconscious, subjectless, blind working out of the law of value. No one directs this revolution, and in no sense can it be said to be political.

In fact, all politics is a reaction to the material transformation of society and an attempt by the members of society to reconstitute their previously existing relations. All politics is reflexive and reactionary — all of it. All politics may be reaction to processes already underway, but what are you going to do? Stand around with your hands in your pockets until capitalism dies in 150 years? People are going to fight, and theory might help them fight more effectively — to disclose the process to them and accelerate it.

There is nothing to say proletarian political revolution ever had a high probability of success — all the material factors were against it; but you fight because you won’t submit like a docile fucking slave. How many slave rebellions occurred in the ante-bellum South with no hope of winning? You fight, and make your enemy miserable with fear and unable to get a single night’s sleep — even if you have no hope of winning.

To be honest, in my opinion a proletarian political revolution never had a snowflake’s chance in hell of succeeding; every factor was going against it — the level of consciousness required, the absence of a real class enemy, the constantly changing character of classes, constant revolution of material conditions of production and, above all, that it had to involved a set of preconditions that was explained by Marx and Engels this way:

“This “alienation” (to use a term which will be comprehensible to the philosophers) can, of course, only be abolished given two practical premises. For it to become an “intolerable” power, i.e. a power against which men make a revolution, it must necessarily have rendered the great mass of humanity “propertyless,” and produced, at the same time, the contradiction of an existing world of wealth and culture, both of which conditions presuppose a great increase in productive power, a high degree of its development. And, on the other hand, this development of productive forces (which itself implies the actual empirical existence of men in their world-historical, instead of local, being) is an absolutely necessary practical premise because without it want is merely made general, and with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced; and furthermore, because only with this universal development of productive forces is a universal intercourse between men established, which produces in all nations simultaneously the phenomenon of the “propertyless” mass (universal competition), makes each nation dependent on the revolutions of the others, and finally has put world-historical, empirically universal individuals in place of local ones. Without this, (1) communism could only exist as a local event; (2) the forces of intercourse themselves could not have developed as universal, hence intolerable powers: they would have remained home-bred conditions surrounded by superstition; and (3) each extension of intercourse would abolish local communism. Empirically, communism is only possible as the act of the dominant peoples “all at once” and simultaneously, which presupposes the universal development of productive forces and the world intercourse bound up with communism. Moreover, the mass of propertyless workers – the utterly precarious position of labour – power on a mass scale cut off from capital or from even a limited satisfaction and, therefore, no longer merely temporarily deprived of work itself as a secure source of life – presupposes the world market through competition. The proletariat can thus only exist world-historically, just as communism, its activity, can only have a “world-historical” existence. World-historical existence of individuals means existence of individuals which is directly linked up with world history.”

But while the failures of the working class were being racked up on the scoreboard — Capitalists 100, Workers 0 — the underlying material process was advancing relentlessly toward its inevitable conclusion. The ranks of the capitalist were being reduced, the ranks of the proletariat were expanding vigorously as that intermediate classes were being ground down to nothing.

The proletarian political revolution was always a side-show, communism as the real movement of society has always been a material, not political, movement. When it is finally completed, there will be no basis on which to reconstitute classes or class society, because the premise, labor, will have disappeared.

In my opinion, the evidence for this is given in the quite astonishing disappearance of the class struggle in this crisis. We could call it “The Great Class Struggle Moderation” — a moderation that signals the end to the era of classes generally. As Marx said to Bakunin, politics is only a phase through which the proletariat must pass so long as it fights on the terrain of the bourgeoisie. In its final constitution, the proletariat does not appear as a class — these political forms drop away from it.

We have always assumed this “withering away of the state”, i.e., (more broadly speaking) of the political conflict between classes, could only happen under the rule of the proletariat, but this is clearly not so.