Getting beyond ‘regime change’ (Part 3)
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 three of an essay intended to address this failure.
In chapter six of the booklet, Sharp emphasizes the need for strategic planning — a topic few communists ever bother to study.
Ask the typical communist in the United States how revolutions happen and s/he will likely tell you revolutions are largely spontaneous. We are gripped by the myth that revolutions are largely unplanned events, mostly triggered by economic or political conditions. A close reading of history, however, will demonstrate that economic or political conditions are insufficient to explain revolutions.
If revolutions were explained by political and economic crises, why were there no successful revolutions in the 1930s. Why did we instead see the rise of fascist regimes in Germany, Italy, Japan, France, the UK and US? Why is that today, in the face of 1930s style depressions in Greece, Spain and Portugal, have the proletarians of those countries not spontaneously acted to take power?
Most communists can’t even tell you what it is they actually hope to achieve by this effort. Of the handful who can tell you, most of what they describe looks a lot like today’s economic system. Some may want a society that look like a giant cooperative market without private ownership or with a subordinate role for private ownership. Others imagine a society that more resembles the failed Soviet mode of production.
But even among the communists who can talk persuasively about the sort of society they hope to see replace the present one, the strategy to achieve it looks pretty much the same.
Almost all communists who have ever bothered to understand how capitalism works know that it could not survive for even a single day if the working class collectively refused to produce surplus value. Without surplus value, there is no profit; without profit, there is no capitalism. .
The difficulty with getting to the end of wage slavery appears to be getting the proletariat on the same page with this model of capitalism. Nobody seems to have any real idea how we get everyone on the same page; and no one thinks this is at all very weird for a movement that has existed for almost two centuries.
Clearly, relying on the possibility that we will all get on the same page as the result of political and economic crises is a non-starter. It may happen of course, but I would not hold my breath waiting for it to happen. A realistic strategy can’t rely on what “might” happen; it has to try to make things happen.
Most communists don’t think wage labor can be abolished
Sharp offers several reason why people don’t plan strategically. In first place we are not accustomed to strategic thinking. It does not come naturally to us. It is a habit that has to be acquired. Second, people just get used to reacting to the latest outrage, as your twitter feed will attest. Then we have progressive moralizers who think there should be “justice” in the world and everything will be just fine.
However, there are also a lot of communists — far more than you would think — who simply don’t believe wage slavery can be abolished. Since these communists have already implicitly or explicitly dismissed the possibility that wage slavery can ever be abolished, they don’t give serious thought to the sort of strategic thinking that might make abolition of wage labor possible. They tend to focus on issues they think are realistic and these are typically the sorts of issues that can be attained by political pressure on the existing state and its political parties.
Without really intending to, perhaps, their strategy is unconsciously adapted to the aim of realizing limited goals like the election of the least offensive political party in an election race. They may continue to insist they want to see an end to wage slavery — they even may not reject communism outright — but they never offer any realistic strategy to achieve that goal.
Since we want a society of freely associated individuals, where the development of the capacities of each is the condition for the development of the capacities of all, at each step along the way we have to be able to say how this or that individual action moves us closer to our ultimate aim.
This requires we create a real strategy.
A social revolution is not spontaneous
This is the subject that Sharp spends a lot of time contemplating in chapters 6 and 7 of his handbook. Sharp says if you want to abolish wage slavery and the state, you have to spend a lot of time strategically planning for this goal:
“While spontaneity has some positive qualities, it has often had disadvantages. Frequently, the democratic resisters have not anticipated the brutalities of the dictatorship, so that they suffered gravely and the resistance has collapsed. At times the lack of planning by democrats has left crucial decisions to chance, with disastrous results. Even when the oppressive system was brought down, lack of planning on how to handle the transition to a democratic system has contributed to the emergence of a new dictatorship.”
Communists always lose because they don’t plan ahead, which leaves crucial decisions being made spontaneously. In the heat of a conflict, an election or a campaign, the state never gets challenged and once emotions cool, we end up in much the same place as before. This is not to say events won’t emerge spontaneously, but it requires a lot of forethought to effectively respond to these events. The fascists have all the resources of a modern society at their fingertips. By contrast, we have only ourselves and our organization.
The future toward which we are striving is a stateless, classless, propertyless society, where wage slavery has been abolished. The present system of production will give way to the free development of individuals. Our immediate task is to devise a course of action that will allow us to abolish the system of wage slavery, the state and replace both with a society founded on the principle of to each according to need that is managed by an association of the members of society. We intend to accomplish this through a phased series of campaigns and other organized activities designed to unify and organize the world proletariat, abolish production for profit world-wide and replace the existing state with a global association of producers.
Notice here that our aim is not simply to overthrow the existing state of one country, but to replace it by a global association of the members of society. Our plan has to take into account not just what we oppose, but also what we desire.
The first thing we have to do is abolish the state.
Typically, communists who think in strategic terms formulate the grand strategy more or less in terms of the immediate outcome of the class struggle. The working class engages the existing state, overcomes it by political or military means, and establishes some sort of “workers’ state” to manage the affairs of society. The term given to this is socialism, a distinct lower phase or stage of communism. The conquest of political power then becomes the strategy around which our tactics and methods of struggle unfold.
At the risk of looking silly, let me say that I think this approach is very wrong. The approach emphasizes methods that may be appropriate for regime change, but not for the abolition of the state. Our objective is not regime change but abolition of the state and this objective determines the appropriate methods of struggle we adopt.
To make my point clearer, the abolition of the state is not an eventual outcome of a communist revolution, but its initial result. The first thing we have to do — not the last thing — is abolish the state. The so-called conquest of political power by the working class is not conquest of political power at all but the immediate abolition of the state. Now, how are you going to employ political means, tactics and methods to abolish politics? How is that supposed to work?
The strategy most communists have instinctively adopted is not to seek abolition of the state but its capture by the working class. We have adopted this strategy, not because we are bad people, but because that is how we are indoctrinated as members of bourgeois society. Appealing to some authority for redress of our grievances — to mommy and daddy — is a habit hammered into our brains long before we formulated our first communist idea.
This is an important reason why we find it so difficult to conceive of a plan of action that is not political. For whatever reason, Marxists of various stripes almost to a person conflate abolition of the state with mere regime change. Their strategy, tactics and methods of struggle inevitably are oriented toward the seizure of political power by whatever means. However, for reasons I will now show, a strategy aimed at abolition of the state cannot look like a strategy aimed at a political revolution.
Material relations are not like political relations
If you want a strategy aimed at seizing political power, Sharp’s handbook is fine. Your color revolution may be anything from deep red to pale pink, but it will never go beyond the limits of bourgeois society. However, if your strategy aims for abolition of wage labor and the state, Sharp’s handbook on how to make a color revolution has serious defects, because, even if Sharp’s advice is followed to the letter, you still end up with a state.
Those trying to change the existing party in power or a dictatorial regime never challenge the economic foundations of society. Even very radical changes are confined to existing political relation and do not encroach on material relations. If our goal is abolition of the state, we have to uproot all existing material relations as well.
This is a huge problem for us because material relations don’t appear to us nor operate like political relations. The logic of political relations is such that our target is the existing regime and this regime can be distinguished from society. The regime is personified as “Trump” or “Mubarak” or more broadly as “Apartheid” or “Zionism”, etc.
Material relations, on the other hand, are by definition highly abstract, offer no real personification, and subject us to its domination without ever appearing as a subject. Material relations appear to us as, if anything, natural laws — “The way the world works”. It is one thing to confront a regime whose actions are clearly identified and obvious in their negative impact on us; quite another to confront highly abstract social relations that appear natural no matter how negative their impact.
People will adapt to social relations they mistakenly assume are natural much as they adapt to harsh natural conditions. Take a person who dwells in the harsh environment of a desert and place her in the harsh environment of the Arctic, she will adapt to it. This is what humans do and we seem to be very good at it.
NEEDED: One revolution in consciousness
This means that a large part of our task is in the realm of consciousness; of changing attitudes toward conditions we now accept as natural. To give an example: For the longest time Americans largely believed black people were inferior and that segregation was natural. It took a struggle by black folks to change this attitude — at least to the point where segregation was no longer lawful.
The same problem applies to wage slavery. People think it is acceptable to force people to create profit as a condition for food. Even the very people being forced to do long hours of surplus labor believe it is their natural station in life. They accept that if they can’t create profit for someone, they should be left to starve or in such miserable conditions it amounts to this.
Moreover, since the mode of production is founded on wage slavery, the very operation of the economy confirms this fallacy. It is almost impossible to find empirical evidence to contradict the idea that wage slavery is a natural condition of human society. And even if you could find evidence, it would only confirm suspicion that history consists entirely of a succession of modes of domination.
“Someone has always been on top and someone will always be on top.” People will tell you.
A grand strategy that doesn’t take into account how material relations actually appear to us, is doomed to failure at the outset. We cannot rely on the idea that political and economic crises will accomplish this important work. We have enough proof from history that this won’t happen. Nor can we rely on the idea that the spontaneous emergence of new movements will produce this consciousness.
A movement that seeks abolition of labor and the state must make this abolition its starting point. Such a movement has to begin with altogether different premises than a mere political movement. Our aim is not to overthrow a political regime, but to bring about an unprecedented revolution in consciousness of the social producers themselves.