Getting beyond ‘regime change’ (Part 1)

by Jehu

INTRODUCTION: Why read Gene Sharp’s book?

I have proposed communists aim to realize a communist society within ten years. The aim may seem unrealistic for two reasons: first, it would appear we are nowhere near technically capable of putting an end to the connection between labor and subsistence. Without being able to produce enough goods to feed, house and clothe the entire population of the planet, communism is not possible.

Second, even if it were technically possible to put an end to wage labor, there does not appear to be sufficient willingness on the part of the working class to act in that direction. On the streets of Europe and North America, at least, the working class do not seem inclined to fight for their own emancipation.

With regards to the first objection, let me state that in 1930 Keynes argued that with just 2% increase in productivity, we would have a work week of just 15 hours. Since 1930, the average increase in productivity has easily exceeded Keynes’ projection. Technically, conditions are now ripe not just for a reduction of hours of labor to 15 hours per week, but for the complete elimination of wage labor — for a society founded on each according to need. I have concluded that there is no objection on account of technical capacity for a fully communist society today.

Still, such a society is not possible without struggle. The fascists no more want to part with our labor power than they want to part with their monopoly on the means of production. If we are to realize communism, we must force that society into existence through our own struggle. To judge by the level of class struggle the objection that the working class is unwilling to emancipate themselves may seem to have some merit, but it has never really been tested in the streets.

In my opinion, the problem here is not that the working class are opposed to the end of wage slavery. Rather, communists have failed to put this option before them. Communists cannot just invent a society founded on each according to need, of course, but if such a society is already technically possible today, the problem has to be in the sphere of consciousness — and this points to a failure on the part of communists.

We will not realize communism in ten years unless we plan how our actions will produce this result. Put simply: there is something terribly wrong with our approach to the struggle for emancipation and we need to fix it. The symptoms of this failed approach is the vague, ineffective strategic thinking on the part of many communists. No one seems to know how we get from here to a communist society or even to socialism. No one knows how the daily struggle for survival becomes a struggle for emancipation.

This essay is intended to address this failure.

The bourgeoisie literally wrote the book

For people who are skeptical that a social revolution can be planned I want to spend some time looking at a familiar handbook for US color revolutions, Gene Sharps’ “From Dictatorship to Democracy”. As everyone knows, Washington spends a great deal of time subverting and overthrowing foreign governments. This does not always take the form of military aggression or sponsoring military coups. Occasionally, as in Venezuela and Syria today, the US makes use of disaffected local forces to promote so-called “regime change”.

Such efforts do not emerge overnight; they are often the product of years of efforts by US intelligence and “non-profit” agencies. Washington maintain a whole range of semi- and non-government agencies that can be deployed for this purpose. One such group is the Albert Einstein Institution, who produced this handbook on color revolutions.

How about we learn from the regime change experts how to subvert the US fascist state? If they can do it to Venezuela, we can do it here; although our aims and strategy would be very different.

My reason for critiquing this booklet, despite its origins, is that no class in modern society is more adept at political struggle against its enemies than the bourgeoisie. If communists want to learn how to destabilize and overthrow capital, we can learn from no better source how to do this than the class that invented regime change in its political struggle against feudalism.

This should address the objections of those communists who, realizing Sharp has written an instruction manual for destabilizing Left regimes, want to dismiss it as imperialist propaganda or some such. A political revolution is not mysterious. The bourgeoisie know regime change because they were the original regime changers. On numerous occasions throughout history, the bourgeoisie has mobilized the entire society to fight its enemies, foreign and domestic. It knows how to foment revolutions as well as it knows how to run a factory or a bank.

Further, it may be hard to imagine that such different countries, with such varying histories, could nevertheless be captured by a pamphlet produced by a Washington agency that makes a study of color revolutions. But there you have it. This book should come as no surprise to us, since it is the bourgeoisie who teaches the proletariat how to fight. When it comes to a political revolution the bourgeoisie literally wrote the book. If you are not studying and critiquing the bourgeois play book, how are you going the make your own revolution.

Don’t be put off by the subject matter simply because Washington uses what it learned through centuries of history to destabilize or overthrow rivals in the world market. The bourgeoisie has always used these methods to attack its enemies and rivals domestically. You just weren’t paying attention. I am critiquing Sharp’s book precisely because it has been tested in a wide number of countries and has proven at least moderately successful on a global level.

Limits to Sharp’s analysis

But most important, (and this cannot be emphasized too much), My reason for critiquing this book is that the analysis Gene Sharp employs in this handbook is precisely the one most communists instinctively tend to adopt in their own praxis. Critiquing Sharp’s approach can reveal weaknesses in our own approach.

Thus, there are a few modifications we have to introduce to Sharp’s analysis to adapt it to our own needs. I will touch on this subject as the essay develops. As will become clear, a communist revolution is not mere regime change.

Sharp makes that point this way:

“[Centers] of power provide the institutional bases from which the population can exert pressure or can resist dictatorial controls. In the future, they will be part of the indispensable structural base for a free society. Their continued independence and growth therefore is often a prerequisite for the success of the liberation struggle.”

In this argument, the foundations of the existing society — particularly its economic base — are not to be ripped up, but to be preserved. If presently these institutions support the existing regime, Sharp proposes they can be indispensable support for a future regime. As a person in one of the videos I have watched put it: Every regime rests on several social institutional pillars, Sharp wants to weaken those pillars just enough so the regime slides off and a new one can take its place.

This strategy, although somewhat politically radical like most progressive strategies, is ultimately conservative. In a more stable regime, like the one we have in the United States, this “radical-conservatism” would resolve itself into nothing more radical than periodic elections. Two or more political gangs would vie for power in elections, but the election would never touch on the underlying “institutional support” for the regime. Rather than “regime change” every 30 years with massive upheaval, the contending political gangs switch places every four or five years.

The most important of these “institutions” is the one of which Sharp never speaks, of course: the buying and selling of labor power. Sharp aims to preserve the wage labor system to whatever extent is possible. The goal is to seduce the bourgeoisie and other disaffected classes from supporting the existing regime. Since the Sharp never mentions the most important and fundamental “institution” of modern society, we can assume that for most part it does not actually aim to make any material changes in the society at all. The analysis of the weakness of regimes is thus largely circumscribed by the limited aim of regime change, rather than abolition of the state.

In this booklet, the weaknesses of regimes are largely caused by “cracks and fissures” in the state machinery itself. By state machinery I mean the the sorts of mechanisms you might expect:

“Intelligence agencies, police, military forces, prisons, concentration camps, and execution squads are controlled by a powerful few. A country’s finances, natural resources, and production capacities are often arbitrarily plundered by dictators and used to support the dictators’ will.”

Like the limited aim of the political revolution, the target of the revolution is described in a very narrow fashion. On the one hand, we have the forces of overt repression; while, on the other hand, the means to fund those forces that are directly or indirectly controlled by the regime.

Although the regime may be powerful, it has a number of weakness putting this power to work. The weaknesses of the regime are stated almost exclusively in political terms: policy problems, administrative failures, informational blindspots, lack of public support, internal dissension, rivalries, sectarian conflicts within the society, apathy and so forth.

Sharp recommends we exploit the political weaknesses within the regime itself in isolation from material transformation of the society as a whole. This follows on from the limited aim to remove political support from the regime while preserving those institutions to the extent possible as support for a future regime.

It is just this sort of limited aim that showed itself in events in Egypt, Ukraine, Greece, etc., where the goal was limited to merely cosmetic political changes. In Egypt, all the population got for their efforts was a change in the name of the military strongman running the state apparatus. In Greece, all the population got was a change in the acronym of the party enforcing the austerity imposed by the troika.

We are certainly looking for changes more profound than this, so we will have to appropriately adjust many of Sharp’s recommendations consistent with our own aims.