Unpopular Opinion: A proletarian revolution is not the way we get to communism
This is the stark question raised by a recent article by an anonymous PhD student in theoretical astrophysics who blogs at Cold and Dark Stars. In a recent blog post titled, “Red giants: statistical fat tails and revolutions as inverse risk-management”, the author takes on the problem of devising a credible path to communism.
The problem identified by the writer is this:
“Revolutions are abrupt changes: extreme, highly variable, non-linear, almost unpredictable, but usually under-predicted – in short, they are black swans. I’ve talked about the black swan before – basically it is a pop-finance/statistics term that describes highly impactful but unpredictable events, like the invention of the internet, the publication of Ulysses by James Joyce, or the October Revolution. Other black swans are earthquakes, nuclear meltdowns, and terrorist attacks. This “black swan” dynamic makes revolutions incredibly epistemically opaque to us, and also bounds the type of questions we can ask about them.”
Communists, on the other hand focus on long-term historical analysis to develop their radical program. There is thus a profound disconnect between the events on which we base our strategy and spontaneous events like a revolution. The question raised by author is what do you do when the event you want to exploit to get to communism has an extremely low probability of happening.
Yes, I said exploit? The use of that term is not a faux pas on my part. Communists want to exploit a spontaneous revolution although they would never put it quite that way.
What we call a revolution is, at least in theory, a low probability event that is independent of the efforts of communists. We don’t make the revolution, society does, but we want to “exploit” this low probability event to achieve aims beyond the event itself.
As an aside let me say this raises another uncomfortable question: Is there any justification for assuming that communists stand outside capitalism? No. But Let’s not let that stop us. For a moment, we will allow the fallacy that communists are able to stand somewhere outside capitalist society and act on it as if we are social engineers. We make this assumption knowing full well it is a fallacy.
We are thus describing revolution in a capitalist society as if we are not part of the process we are describing — we are putting ourselves in “God mode”.
We must never assume this is actually possible. It is a fallacy that violates what should be our fundamental assumption: there is no outside to the capitalist mode of production. The author employs an analogy that may help us here: A revolution is like an earthquake. We know earthquakes are inevitable. But, at present, we are not able to predict when or where they will happen next.
Moreover, while earthquakes are inevitable somewhere and some time, the probability of them happening where we are at any given time is negligible. Effectively, a revolution, like an earthquake: we know it is going to happen, but it is impossible to predict when and where. In the meantime, in California, the population is growing by more than five percent a year. I will return to this point later.
The problem, according to the author, is that the tools available to a communist are by and large not fit for the task of predicting revolutions:
“[Historians] can analyze in hindsight what were the causes of a specific revolution, but they are incredibly ill equipped to delimit the possibilities/impossibilities of the next revolutionary event. This does not mean that future prognosis based on longue durée history is epistemically prohibited, but that history can only be used to forecast slow-changing, long averages, not shocks and sudden jumps. Revolution, if anything, is the quintessential example of a historical shock, therefore no amount of PhDs and “brilliance” can prognosticate the possible horizons of the next revolution. Whole traditions of socialism exist that have “caked” in them a strategy of revolution or social change, but many of them are nothing more than dogma.”
Historical forces act only over the long-term, while revolutions are sudden, highly compressed, entirely unpredictable events. The best we can hope for is to prepare for them in advance and have in place the infrastructure to take advantage of them. Here, the author offers a familiar solution to the problem:
“Perhaps, a better approach is to look at the current existing social averages to start building a party in the mean time, while having flexible enough tactics that can be modified depending on future social contingencies. Such an approach would require engaging with current tried and tested modes of financing, organization, and media that are being developed by current, bourgeois organizations, while at the same time, taking into account longue durée historical analysis to develop a radical, principled socialist “maximum program”. Therefore, such a program would be inspired from the historical experiences of socialists, but “filtered” by granular tactics informed by modern scientific disciplines, current aesthetics and present values.”
The solution the author offers is not unexpected. In fact, it is standard communist boilerplate in both its Marxist and anarchist variants. Somewhere, at some time, an event is going to take place. We should prepare now in order to be ready to take advantage of it for the furtherance of the aims of the working class.
The author suggests that while we cannot as yet predict revolutions, we can prepare for them — an approach the author calls “inverse risk management.” In conventional risk management, one prepares for a negative event — such as an earthquake — that could damage us severely. Inverse risk management is similar: advanced preparation for an unlikely revolutionary event that we can harness to reach communism.
The problem with this idea is that the big historical “earthquake” came and went between 1914 and 1945 and all we got for it was 100 million dead and fascism. The strategy proposed by the author is very similar to that proposed by Marx and Engels in the Manifesto:
- The working class would organize itself as a class,
- Wait for a catastrophic breakdown of the mode of production,
- Take advantage of the crisis to raise the working class to the position of ruling class
- Communism (or, at least, its lower phase)
True to the strategy proposed by Marx and Engels, when the time came the working class was, by and large, organized as a class in the most advanced countries of the world market. The catastrophic breakdown of capitalism occurred in the form of two world wars and an unprecedented collapse of economic activity just as was assumed.
And it all ended very badly for everyone involved.
I am not sure anyone has any idea why it ended badly. The problem wasn’t the lack of strategy; rather, it was that the strategy failed and we ended up with 100 million dead instead of communism. Failure began when the working class parties sided each with their bourgeoisie in World War One and disaster followed disaster from there. It ended with both the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China “taking the capitalist road.” (For lack of a better phrase.) The 20th century is littered with just one catastrophic event after another in this vein.
As Postone has argued, failure of the workers’ movement was so universal it suggests some as yet undefined necessary cause. It is not as though the working class occasionally failed, or sometimes failed. Its failures were global, while its successes were local and transitory. In most cases the working classes never took power. Even when they took power in most cases they could not hold onto it. And even when they could hold onto it, their rule ended in failure.
Even where it managed to take power, the proletarians brief role as ruling class was an abject failure. That is a pretty shitty track record for a strategy.
The dispassionate conclusion from all of this history is that the working class probably should never try to take power. Or, if it should find itself effectively in power, should immediately abolish the power it wields. Which is basically what Marx concluded from the Paris Commune:
- Don’t do it. (Marx’s counsel to the communards.)
- If you do do it immediately get rid of the existing state.
Which raises what I think is the most important question not addressed by the writer: Is it just possible the proletariat was never really meant to make a revolution?
I mean, one thing people from many different radical perspectives seem to agree on (and I might be pushing this a bit) is that revolutions are basically a bourgeois political form. (NOTE: I stole the idea that the political revolution is a bourgeois form from Chris Cutrone. I am only riffing on his original idea. And probably not that well.)
The political revolution is basically a form inherited from the bourgeois class in its struggle against the Ancien Régime. Although pretty impressive when it comes to ripping up pre-capitalist social relation, is it really an appropriate form for a class that is not really a class? (German Ideology) How long can you last as a ruling class when, constitutionally, you are not really a class at all?
We communists assume that a political revolution is the highest expression of collective social action available to the proletariat, but is it really? In most actual revolutions the proletariat actually just gets carried along by the bourgeoisie and mobilized to destroy the bourgeoisie’s enemies. We are the shock troops of the bourgeoisie against the remnants of the old regime and especially against other bourgeois states. (Manifesto.)
Is it possible that by aspiring to anything more than this politically the proletarians are deluding themselves.
We tend to imagine getting to communism by way of political revolutions only because we are products of bourgeois society. But this means waiting for a low probability event which outbreak we can neither predict nor adequately prepare for. It means waiting for the bourgeoisie of our own nation to start fighting among themselves or fighting the bourgeoisie of another nation. A huge war as Badiou has recently argued to so destabilize class power in our own country that we can challenge our own bourgeoisie for position as the ruling class.
My argument here is that we should not be waiting for a revolution as the author suggests. Not only are revolutions extremely infrequent, difficult to predict in terms of time and place and mostly failures, they are very much one-off events.
Generously defined, a there have been three revolutions in the United States in the last 240 years or so. What specific political issues did they have in common? Not much. Revolutions are not just widely separated in time and place, but also in the peculiarities of social conditions and classes. The Civil War is not just separated by the New Deal in time; the two events occur under totally different conditions. The US of the 1930s bore little resemblance to the US of the 1860s.
Further, we have our own priorities for which a political revolution is known to be economically insufficient. Even when a revolution break out, its ultimate impact is, in almost every case, so limited as to constitute no more than a marginal change for the proletarians. (And, mind you, this is a political revolution we are speaking about; I won’t even mention elections or other forms of political activities.)
And, a final objection: as I argued above we have assumed so far that we have a perch outside capitalism from which we can affect events. Once we drop this fallacy, communists are as influenced by the developments within the mode of production as everyone else. The very idea that communists are in the unique position to engineer the mode of production without being affect by the mode of production falls flat on its face.
As Mao put it, the bourgeoisie is in the party. The longer we wait for the political maturation of social contradictions, the more pressing those contradictions are expressed within the vanguard itself. We delay action at our own risk.
We aim for complete emancipation from labor, something no mere political revolution ever promises. Why would we wait perhaps decades for an event that in all probability promises us nothing of substance?
If a political revolution is by its very character economically insufficient for the aims of the proletarians, what form is economically sufficient? The answer initially given by Marx and Engels was communism, i.e., the real movement of society. This probably seems like a bizarre answer because we normally think of communism as our ultimate aim, not a path or strategy to get to our aim.
Well, yes and no.
Communism is our aim, but it is also how we propose to get to our aim. We aim to get to communism by means of communism, by means of a real movement of society. The aims of communism and the means are identical as would be expected. This is decidedly different from capital, where the aims and the means are decidedly at odds with each other. For example, each day we go to work not because it is our life’s chief want, but to get money to buy means simply to live. Our wants and our means are at odds. Almost no one goes to work because they want to be there. They go to work because they need money to purchase the means of life.
In communism, we only go to work because we want to be at work and for no other reason. For communism to exist, society must only engage in labor because it is life’s chief want. For this to happen certain material prerequisites are necessary. Communism, as the real movement of society, aims to realize those material prerequisites, which we also call communism.
Nothing we do to reach communism can differ in the slightest way from communism itself. If communism in the 20th century can be characterized by anything, it is that this condition for communism did not hold true. Whether Leninism or social democracy, the means adopted were decidedly at odds with the avowed aim. In each case, for instance, the state was employed as means to effect the real movement of society. This is not a judgment call, I am simply stating facts.
It may have been impossible for the Soviet Union to achieve what it did without the soviet state. Who knows. We don’t have a counterfactual to suggest otherwise. It may not have even been possible for the Soviet Revolution to occur in the first place without Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Again counterfactual evidence is extremely thin. In any case, the experience of the Soviet Union was less than desired for all of us.
If I were to single out any reason for the failure of the Soviet Union, I would certainly begin with the observation that means and ends were at odds. The only way we are going to get to communism is by means of communism — a process some have tagged communization.
Nothing less than communization is adequate to our needs.
The problem with this approach is that no one really knows what it means. What is this movement, communism?
To be honest, people know even less about communism as the real movement of society than they do about communism as the society brought into being by this movement. And most of what we do know is thoroughly poisoned by the experiences of the workers’ movement of the 20th century. The 20th century workers’ movement relied heavily on political measures and means both before and after gaining power. It was not a real movement of society; rather, it was a political movement that for all its successes never could get beyond politics.
This is great for us, since it means we can immediately throw out almost everything we know from those experiences. If we know anything, we know that everything in the 20th century is useless to us. We don’t have to keep doing the same shit over and over again and expecting different results. The experiences aren’t a complete loss, of course. The world looks very different at the end of the 20th century than it did at the beginning. This is due in no small part to the many struggle of the proletarians over the century.