Getting beyond ‘regime change’ (Part 2)
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 is part two of an essay is intended to address this failure.
2. Targeting the sources of the enemy’s power
While Sharp recommends a strategy of non-violent resistance that exploits the political weaknesses of a regime, communists aim for the material transformation of the society as a whole, for abolition of wage labor and the state. For this reason, our strategy must exploit the material vulnerabilities of the state, not merely its political weaknesses.
We don’t seek the replacement of the present Republican administration by a Democrat administration, nor even the replacement of both Democrats and Republican governments by a radical government of some third party. Our aim is the abolition of the state, of the political system bound up with the state and the replacement of government of people by the administration of things.
This requires the sort of strategic considerations normally not found among those who aim for mere cosmetic, political changes to society. We must identify the sources of the state’s social power which are not at all to be confused with the sources of the political power of any party.
Sharp tells the tale of the “monkey-master,” a brutal dictator who dominated a colony of monkeys until they realized his sole power over them was their compliance with his unreasonable demands for a tenth of their labor. Sharp concludes with this observation:
“Some men in the world rule their people by tricks and not by righteous principles. Aren’t they just like the monkey master? They are not aware of their muddleheadedness. As soon as their people become enlightened, their tricks no longer work.”
The argument is that a political regime requires a compliant population. Whether or not this is an oversimplification is not the question here. More important for our purposes is whether this observation applies not just to individual regimes or governments, but to the state itself.
While particular regimes can be said to rise or fall on the political support of the population, the state itself requires much more than political support: it requires the surplus value extracted from the working class in capitalist production.
While the overthrow of a political regime may be brought about by subverting the political support of the population in one way or another, the abolition of the state requires that we end the production of surplus value itself. It is impossible to bring the production of surplus value to an end without at the same time abolishing wage slavery.
Sharp elaborates some important principles of which we should take notice. The most important principles, I think are these:
- We must identify our enemy’s strengths and weaknesses;
- Develop our capacity for strategic planning;
- Aim to sever our enemy from their sources of power; and,
- Learn how to exercise power.
From our point of view, there are ways in which the applicability of these principles are limited by the limited aim of regime change. Groups like Sharp’s aim for a political result — regime change — not abolition of the state. It follows from this that they want to preserve the existing state and merely change the faces in power. Sharp ultimately wants to preserve both the existing state and the system of wage labor that makes it possible. Thus his aim is merely superficial cosmetic changes.
Nevertheless, the pamphlet has these suggestions that are very pertinent for our consideration. Sharp recommends that we never fight using methods the enemy prefers and can easily combat. He also recommends we aim to sever the enemy from their sources of power; keep the initiative over where and under what circumstances we confront the enemy in our hands; employ methods that exploits the enemies errors; effectively mobilize the entire population against the enemy; and increases the capacity of the people to fight through their self-organization.
I will examine some of these ideas more in the next few sections.
3. Communism is not a political movement
In chapter five of his booklet, Sharp reiterates his contention that those seeking to destabilize a dictatorship should avoid armed struggle. Dictatorships, by their nature, tend to have massive superiority in a military conflict. If the opponents of a regime seek its overthrow, Sharp recommends they should choose non-violent methods to destabilize it.
In choosing the term, non-violent, however, Sharp actually means political methods short of armed struggle. Since the regime is likely militarily strong, opponents should confine the conflict to terrain where the enemy is weak: its political support.
Seen in this light, what options do communists have against a ruling class that is both militarily strong and politically secure?
Think about this: Washington has fought four great conflicts in its history — the American Revolution, the Civil War, World War I and World War II. Further, it has carried out scores of major and minor interventions in just the past 60 years alone. Through these interventions it has acquired a great deal of skill in the sphere of military conflict against forces who were far better prepared for conflict than we are. It also spends more on force projection than all other nations combined and has a very deep bench among its experienced military leaders.
Obviously, communists are no position at this time to directly challenge Washington militarily — but what of a direct political confrontation?
I would argue that Washington is no less formidable in this area as it is militarily. Anyone whose strategy is based on the idea the American bourgeois political system can be overthrown is hallucinating. The American state set all the rules for political contests and can alter those rules as it sees fit. It has two major parties that between them have almost 400 years of experience governing under the most diverse social condition — from major economic depression to a civil war to major conflicts involving formidable imperialist powers.
I think we can safely rule out challenging the ruling class of this country either militarily or politically — at least in the short run.
In the absence of military and political capacity to challenge Washington, what other options do we have? I would propose that we think in terms of what at this point I will simply call an “anti-political” strategy. This is a strategy that not only seeks to avoid military confrontation, but also to avoid all engagement with politics and the state.
Our anti-political strategy seeks the disintegration (or abolition) of the existing state. Nothing short of this will satisfy our demands. We want no engagement with the state; no reforms short of the state’s complete abolition; no inclusion in its deliberations; and no seat at the table. Where Sharp’s “democracy advocates” seek the replacement of one regime by another, more democratic, regime, we seek only abolition of the state itself. All we want from the state is that it cease to exist.
To be clear: this is not a sign of our strength — bravado — but a clear and honest acknowledgement of our real weakness in the face of the vast military and political superiority of the enemy. We can no more go toe-to-toe with the Democrats and GOP than we can go toe-to-toe with the Marines. Since, in principle, we avoid confrontations with the enemy where they are strong and seek confrontations with them where they are weak, both military and political confrontations must be avoided at this time.
Again, our anti-political approach is not a matter of principle, but based solely on pragmatic concerns about the balance of forces. It is possible that in the future this balance may change and open up the possibility of military or political confrontation on grounds favorable to us. For the moment, however, efforts to directly engage Washington on military or political grounds are sheer lunacy.
4. Communism is not a national movement
To put this is in terms communists might understand: Our enemy prefers to fight in the national political arena. The enemy relies on the strength of control of the electoral process, backed up by its forces of repression.
Let me argue that it is as insane to try to directly challenge the fascists using national, political means as it is to try to challenge the Marines, Army and police. In the first place, they control all of the conditions of election contests. In the second place, when they lose they will resort to force in any case. If we are going to fight the fascists effectively, we have to avoid making this a national political contest.
Our terrain is global and we have to force them to fight on our terrain. From the point of view of the proletariat, to sever our enemy from their sources of power we must tackle the problem of interrupting the production of surplus value. But the production of surplus value no more take place at the national level than it takes place in a single factory.
Surplus value is the product of the total labor power of society — throughout the world market. We have to be able to strike wherever surplus value is being created — and that means everywhere. Every factory, every community and every country is a site of potential struggle to sever the enemy from their sources of power. Our fight has to be waged in such a way that it engages not just the workers of one country, but the global population of proletarians. And it has to encourage self-organization everywhere where there are proletarians.
The limitations of a national political fight is not only that the terrain is dominated by the most powerful bourgeoisie on the planet, a fight limited to the national political level effectively isolates the US proletariat from the rest of the class. This is particularly true of fights to realize limited reforms within the existing state and which rely on the state to effect them. The struggles for a higher minimum wage, jobs guarantee or universal basic income erect a wall between US workers and the rest of the class who have no standing in the national political contest. Meanwhile, Washington routinely consults and coordinates it interventions with all of its allied counterparts to settle on a common strategy of global domination.
Moreover, workers of the whole world are producing the surplus value that ultimately finances US global military and political dominance. It is not possible to sever Washington from its sources of power without engaging the working class world-wide. To give an example of how impossible it is to do this, consider that the US has run an unbroken string of federal and trade deficits for the last 36 years. That financing has enabled Washington to undertake the largest military build out in human history. Unless we can cut this surplus value off at its source, which is not just in the United States, our cause is hopeless.
It is obvious that we cannot defeat Washington militarily — anyone who offers that path is a charlatan. But it should be just as obvious that we cannot defeat Washington in a political struggle, although many still hope for this. We go global or we go home. It is that simple.
5. Maintaining the discipline of a communist movement
An anti-political strategy, which avoids both political and military engagement, poses a problem that people mostly think in political terms. For most of the past 120 years or so, the debate has been over whether we should pursue peaceful means or armed struggle. If you were a “reformist”, you made a fetish of peaceful methods of confrontation. If you were a “revolutionary”, you made a fetish of armed struggle. In truth almost no one ever actually limited their struggle to one or the other, but we still divided ourselves into these silly camps. It was more territory marking than anything else.
It is a lot harder to think of offensive actions against the bourgeoisie that are neither political or military than it is to think of political offensive actions that fall short of armed struggle. Both the armed struggle and the electoral struggle are political forms, while anti-political offensive action is not. We don’t even have a word for this sort of struggle that I can think of. It is very hard to imagine a form of struggle when you don’t even have a word to describe it.
I would propose we think of this sort of struggle as a “social struggle”, as opposed to the anti-sociality of capitalistic relations. In our social struggle we seek to avoid political terrain — be it either military or electoral. Politics, even when conducted by non-military means, is the sociality of a fundamentally anti-social process; to which we should counter-pose our real social movement.
A critique of the ideas in Sharp’s book should begin with how those ideas can be adapted to a social movement. To give a good example, on page 32 of his booklet, Sharp makes this argument:
“Since nonviolent struggle and violence operate in fundamentally different ways, even limited resistance violence during a political defiance campaign will be counterproductive, for it will shift the struggle to one in which the dictators have an overwhelming advantage (military warfare). Nonviolent discipline is a key to success and must be maintained despite provocations and brutalities by the dictators and their agents.”
This idea can be applied to the antagonism between a social and a political struggle as well. For a social struggle, political engagement with the existing state and its agents shift the battle from our terrain to the terrain controlled by the enemy. The discipline of those involved in the social movement is key to success and should be maintained not only against violent provocations, but also against political and individual blandishments, like offers for reform, political dialogue or negotiations. The more the power of the social movement increases, the more likely the offers for reforms and dialogues will swell — as well as acts of violent repression.
Both Occupy and Black Lives Matter were inundated with political party operatives, opportunists, as well as state violence, disruption and surveillance. Denying political operatives and opportunists a platform in the social movements is as vital as uncovering paid and unpaid informers. We do this not out of hostility to people who retain faith in the political process, but to prevent our social movement from being disrupted and diverted along a political path.
Many folks engaged in politics may have genuine interest in supporting or maintaining links with the social movements, like, perhaps, SYRIZA in Greece, but these folks always ultimately seek power or reforms within the existing state, not its abolition. By contrast, a social movement wants only to abolish the state and does nothing to normalize its existence.
Maintaining discipline of hostility to the state in all of its manifestations is important to turning the state’s own corruption against it. We don’t want any part of the sausage making process. We just want it to go away.
Certain communist groups, particularly those organized along the lines of political parties, may be unwilling to abandon politics. They should be told in no uncertain terms to separate themselves from our social movement. While we even may share the same ultimate aim — communism — their engagement with the state and politics undermines this effort.
Hostility to politics both requires and tends to produce a loss of respect for the state and politics. That loss of respect is a key element in destroying the power of the state over the general population. The social movement should treat even well-meaning individuals, parties and political measures with absolute indifference.