In What Is To Be Done of 1902 Lenin opposed revolutionary spontaneity because it “strips away the disciplined nature of the Marxists idea of revolution, leaving it arbitrary and ineffective.” True to himself, Lenin then returned to opposition to spontaneous revolution after WWI during the German Revolution of 1918-19 when in a spontaneous uprising against the post-WWI system Rosa Luxemburg and the Spartacist League failed in an attempt to overturn German capitalism.
Similarly, in November 1918, when Kurt Eisner, a politician of the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD), became Minister-President of a newly proclaimed People’s State of Bavaria—which Eisner considered a socialist republic—distanced himself from the Russian Bolsheviks and declared that his government would PROTECT property rights, he in effect declared his personal spontaneous revolt. Thus he had no external backing whatsoever and a faulty, and still capitalist program.
In the following January Eisner’s party lost heavily in the Bavarian Parliament elections and in February he was assassinated by a right-wing nationalist. As a result bedlam exploded—guns firing, people dying—in the Parliament palace overlooking the city of Munich. Movements for change and government broke down in Bavaria which has henceforth been dominated by Bavaria Catholic Christian Democrats. The Eisner People’s State thus vindicated Lenin and substantiated his fears of the devilish waste of spontaneous revolution. Things do after all go around and around but do not always return … a boomerang gone astray.
Revolutionary spontaneity is the belief that revolution should begin below, without the guidance of a revolutionary party, or a vanguard party as was said in Lenin’s times. Lenin’s fear, borne out by German events, was that a spontaneous movement could be infiltrated and taken over by reactionary forces. The Yellow Vests in France face similar issues today.
The dedication and tenacity of the people wearing the Yellow Vests (Gilets Jaunes- GJ) are wonderful. Their initial goals of lowering taxes on working people in general and bringing down the capitalist exploiter, French President Emmanuel Macron, are meritorious and revolutionary: Even their boasts of having no leadership may at first seem convincing.
However, there are many howevers. For as Lenin wrote, “Revolution is (always) brewing and is bound to flare up.” Because revolutionary threat is frequently brewing, Capitalism is always as fearfully afraid as it is vigilantly alert to threats to its existence. For Capitalism’s ultimate fear is the people. The Yellow Vests are the personification and manifestation of the people.
To me personally the real “people” in command implies the ultimate arrival of some form of Communism, the specter of which haunts not only Europe of today, as Marx warned, but the entire western world. For the fundamental struggle today, as it was yesterday for Marx, is class struggle. And class struggle is what the Yellow Vests movement is thus far apparently and hopefully all about. The only identity of the Yellow Vests we can be relatively sure of for now is that it is representative of the people. Which people is to be yet determined. But I believe in the French case, in the cause of the real people.
At this point in time the Gilets Jaunes claim to have no leaders. True? Maybe. Maybe not completely. Who decides today, this Saturday, what is to be done? When yellow vested marchers-protesters reach the Arc de Triomphe, they can’t just mill around the arch all day. They have to do something. They have to go somewhere. Twelve avenues depart like spokes from the Arc de Triomphe on Place Charles de Gaulle, the Etoile. Shall they take Avenue Hoche or Avenue Foch, Victor Hugo or Avenue de la Grande Arrmée? Someone will shout over a megaphone “Let’s head for the Trocadero!” And off they go. Someone is leading. At the very start, now over two months ago, someone suggested that protesters meet at Place de la Concorde and march up the Champs Elysées carrying placards against President Macron’s gasoline tax “And hey, let’s all wear yellow vests, you know, like those in our car trunks in case you’re standing on a road at night changing a tire.”
So at that point certain persons step forward from the masses. First they are urban guides. Yes, take Avenue Foch. Prompters. Then they act as spokesmen of the movement to provide answers to petty-bourgeois journalists’ questions as to what it’s all about … or perhaps to a government arbiter who wants to propose unacceptable offers.
But simultaneously the legitimate question arises: Are those first spokesmen really representative? Are they elected. Or selected? That is often where the problem lies. Not always, maybe not even often, do the best step forward. Ambitious persons do. Well, it takes a bit of ambitious leadership too. For as Lenin and Marx always insisted: leadership is necessary. As the New York Occupy Wall Street Movement that began in September 2011 showed: without leadership popular movements wither away.
The anti-bourgeois, anti-capitalist movement of 1968 that swept across the world confirmed Lenin and Marx’s warnings that the threatened bourgeois reactionary class always lies in ambush, always trying to infiltrate such movements and to deviate them from revolutionary goals and vitiate them of their anti-capitalist nature. Secret services work that way. That’s their job. After all they work under cover.
Do rabid protesters-hooligans undermine their own movements by devastating shops and burning cars? Or do undercover agents do the dirty work to sully the name of the protest movement? For secret services of the world know how to use the “strategy of tension” and false flag operations: secret agents burn ten cars and blame it on protesters and then crack down on the whole movement. Secret agents were at work in Berlin in 1933: “Burn the Reichstag in Berlin, blame it on a Communist and establish the Nazi dictatorship.”
Infiltrators come from all sides, government agents on the one hand, political opposition on the other, support and join protest movements, and attempt to take them over from the inside and deviate them from their original goals. Example: Italy’s two government rightist parties, the Fascist Lega and Liberal Five Star Movement have tried to gain a foothold in the Yellow Vests in France. Wisely the Yellow Vests have thus far rejected such offers.
Is the Gilets Jaunes Movement spontaneous? Is that possible considering the national spread of the movement? If the movement is spontaneous I want to believe that it is developing a leadership internally, and that it can remain true to its goal of bringing about the collapse of the French government. In that sense it is a positive sign if certain members step forward as guides and spokesmen so as not to display the inherent weaknesses of just another fly-by-night movement without leadership.
Still, as always, the question is complex. Who will become the leaders? And will these leaders move in the direction indicated by the demands of the base of the movement: “Down with the government and the system it represents.” If the emergent leaders are true leaders then the revolutionary demands by necessity will be anti-system, i.e, anti-capitalist, not just for another variant of capitalism: free market capitalism, finance capitalism, state capitalism, welfare capitalism, democratic capitalism, corporatism or fascism, each and every one of which is ultimately based on capitalist exploitation of labor.
Therefore the necessity of anti-bourgeois, anti-capitalist leaders for any movement aimed at the overthrow of the system which ultimately means the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by something else. Therefore the necessity of a leadership—vanguard or revolutionary specialists—to guarantee the original goals of the anti-systemic, anti-capitalist movement. Hopeful emergents from the underworld of the unrepresented protesters of forgotten classes with their besieged hopes, observers of class relations, journalists and writers, and political leaders must keep in the front of their minds: class struggle, working class, class struggle, capitalism, working class.
Gaither Stewart is a Writer on Dandelion Salad. A veteran journalist and essayist on a broad palette of topics from culture to history and politics, he is also the author of the Europe Trilogy, celebrated spy thrillers whose latest volume, Time of Exile, was recently published by Punto Press. His latest book is the essay anthology Babylon Falling: Essays About Waning Qualities and Studies of Failing Empires (Punto Press, 2017).
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