Reform or revolution, pt. 1: “What’s Left?” June 2020 (MRR #445)

Legislative reform and revolution are not different methods of historic development that can be picked out at the pleasure from the counter of history, just as one chooses hot or cold sausages. Legislative reform and revolution are different factors in the development of class society. They condition and complement each other, and are at the same time reciprocally exclusive, as are the north and south poles, the bourgeoisie and proletariat.

—Rosa Luxemburg, Social Reform or Revolution


I talk a good game.

Popularize and politicize social discontent. Encourage bottom up insurrection. Communize everything.

I’m switching out my usual Marxist jargon for the postmodern lingo the kids these days are into. But you get my drift. Communism now, communism tomorrow, communism forever.

Now I’ll let you in on a little secret.

I’m OK with anybody but Trump. Even a candidate offering the most incremental ruling class difference will do. Sanders ended his campaign and endorsed Biden. I’m nothing if not pragmatic so I’ll even settle for Joe Biden.

But maybe I’m not being practical, just a pushover. This is little more than the classic either/or contradiction between reform versus revolution posed by Rosa Luxemburg and so often debated in Leftist circles. Let me state my case for why radical social change (aka revolution) is a good thing.

Capitalism is a killer. It’s an economic system that is in endless crisis and that fosters deadly social crises. Capitalism generates vast inequalities of wealth and power that, in turn, foments antagonistic social divisions. It is a system that undermines democracy, freedom and autonomy through exploitation, imperialism and oppression. Based on maximizing profits and economic growth above all else, capitalism fosters alienation, perpetuates violence and destroys the planet. We need to destroy capitalism in order for us, our communities, our world to survive.

Postmodernism is the “incredulity towards metanarratives” that proposes a piecemeal “resistance of everyday life.” Meanwhile, capitalism is an actually totalizing system that permeates to the furthest corners of the globe and the deepest reaches of the human psyche. The Vietnamese defeat of the powerful US military in asymmetrical “David vs Goliath” warfare belies that the VietCong were backed by the North Vietnamese Army and a highly centralized Communist Party. A totalizing capitalism needs to be overthrown by a total social revolution.

The genius of capitalism as a totalizing system based on human labor power and the sale of that labor power is to convince us that the basis for that system is as universal and natural as the air we breath, and thus invisible. That our working class agency doesn’t exist and that our true identities reside in anything but our class, in a multitude of postmodern cultural identities reduced to impotence by that very same capitalism. Our task once again is to reconstitute our agency by transforming our “class in itself” into a “class for itself.”

At best, voting is harm reduction. At worst, it obfuscates where our real power comes from. Our power doesn’t come from electoral politics, but from the self-activity and self-organization of working people. Our power doesn’t end with nor is it contained by our class. Nor is our power limited to collectively withholding our labor. From daily collective resistance through disrupting business-as-usual to creating alternative networks of dual power; our options are myriad. Ours is not state power, but a true social power that arises from class self-emancipation.

Maoists were fond of opining “dare to struggle, dare to win.” But to Mao’s “if you don’t hit it, it won’t fall,” libertarian socialists counter “if it doesn’t fall, you didn’t hit it hard enough.” It goes without saying that you can’t win if you don’t play the game. We must build workers’ movements with teeth, those with the power to force the hands of those in power. The odds are stacked heavily against us, and our timeframe must be measured in generations, if not centuries. Our choice remains a Luxemburgian one between socialism or barbarism, even if our chances for socialism are slim.

This strident screed is almost pure left communism. But the older I get the less I feel the need for any kind of purity—theoretical, practical or otherwise. I’ll be the first to admit that my default “class über alles” politics doesn’t work well dealing with those ur-divisions—sex and race—that preceded the rise of capitalism by millennia. I don’t propound the thesis that “race/sex is a social construct” so much as I ignore contradictions based on race and sex altogether. The Old Left and the New Left did a far better job grappling with and integrating a class-based analysis with concerns over racism and sexism. And that’s not my only political contradiction.

I’ve downplayed my involvement in electoral politics by contending that voting minimizes harm. US politics has allowed me, as a California resident, to claim that I voted for “far left” Bernie Sanders while conveniently ignoring that the Democratic party candidate is likely to be “reactionary scum” Joe Biden. Thus I can claim the moral high ground by saying I voted my conscience while sidestepping the fact that my vote was essentially wasted. Which is just one step shy of arguing that all voting is a waste, bringing us back to the reform versus revolution debate.

I was thrilled to learn about Italian Autonomy in 1984. My politics were evolving from left anarchism to left communism as I studied more Marx. I devoured Autonomedia’s Semiotext(e) volume Autonomia and enshrined Sylvère Lotringer’s formulation of “Autonomy at the base” who wrote: “[p]olitical autonomy is the desire to allow differences to deepen at the base without trying to synthesize them from above, to stress similar attitudes without imposing a ‘general line,’ to allow parts to co-exist side by side, in their singularity.I considered this an intriguing method to bridge the divide between anarchism and Marxism, a brilliant way to move forward politically, and a powerful tool for getting things done. Little did I know at the time that most Marxists, including many Autonomists, considered such a strategy not Autonomy’s singular strength but its profound weakness.

I’ve since realized that such a strategy rarely results in bridging ideological divides, moving forward politically, or successfully working together to accomplish things. As an anarchist-Marxist I thought it possible to synthesize differences from below and to develop a “general line” through shared direct action. Perhaps at the height of some revolutionary situation, but as a rule synthesis and unity are the exception when it comes to finding common theoretical ground through common political activity.

Autonomy’s flaccid approach conveniently evades the almost laughably Aristotelian logic of Luxemburgian “reform or revolution” while simultaneously threatening to devolve into grouplet politics. “Grouplet politics is not an embryo of revolutionary politics,” wrote Goren Therborn. “It is a substitute for it.” Paul Costello describes the history of the US Left over the past several decades—and my own “pure” politics by implication—as the epitome of “grouplet politics.” He cedes that capitalism “has once again proven its great stability, resilience and flexibility” and argues that “we can no longer afford the luxury of small sect politics, with the delusion that it is revolutionary politics in embryo.” Costello insists that we shift the “terrain out of the left ghetto and into the mainstream” and recommends the more nuanced, integrative Hegelian/Marxist dialectical logic of Antonio Gramsci. [Theoretical Review #31, 1983]

A Leninist, Gramsci was intent on forging the working class into a counter hegemony capable of revolutionary “wars of position” that simultaneously entailed a long march through the institutions of capital’s hegemonic apparatus. “[W]hile remaining faithful to the value of total transformation beyond capitalism,” Walter L. Adamson argues. “Gramscian revolution also offered a gradualist approach consistent with the cultural and political complexity of the West and devoid of the means-ends paradoxes which plagued classical Leninism.” [Theory and Society, v6 n3] Gramsci’s subtle Marxism, in particular his targeting of the cultural superstructure of Western capitalist societies, has lead him to be appropriated by both Eurocommunism and the neo-Fascist Nouvelle Droite. Philosopher André Gorz, a neo-Marxist schooled in Gramsci, developed the strategy of non-reformist reformism to bridge the divide between reform and revolution in Strategy for Labor:
[A] struggle for non-reformist reforms—for anti-capitalist reforms—is one which does not base its validity and its right to exist on capitalist needs, criteria, and rationales. A non-reformist reform is determined not in terms of what can be, but what should be. And finally, it bases the possibility of attaining its objective on the implementation of fundamental political and economic changes. The changes can be sudden, just as they can be gradual. But in any case they assume a modification of the relations of power; they assume that the workers will take over powers or assert a force (that is to say, a non-institutionalized force) strong enough to establish, maintain, and expand those tendencies within the system which serve to weaken capitalism and to shake its joints. They assume structural reforms.

I’ll revisit this soon. Next column: Traditionalism.

Personal recollections
Social Reform or Revolution by Rosa Luxemburg
Autonomia: Post-Political Politics ed. by Sylvère Lotringer and Christian Marazzi
“Antonio Gramsci and the Recasting of Marxist Strategy” by Paul Costello
“Beyond ‘Reform or Revolution:’ Notes on Political Education in Gramsci, Habermas and Arendt” by Walter L. Adamson
Gramsci and Marxist Theory ed. by Mouffe
Where Have all the Fascists Gone? By Tamir Bar-on
Strategy for Labor: A Radical Proposal by André Gorz
“Reform and Revolution” by André Gorz
See also Nicos Poulantzas on Gramsci, revolution and structural reformism

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