Joe Biden won the 2020 US Presidential Election after narrowly defeating the sitting president Donald Trump. This victory comes at a tremendous cost: the defeat of an incipient counter-hegemonic movement which embryonically expressed demands for an alternative future to capitalism. Even after the collective utterance of anger against police brutality and the nascent realization of the structural violence of capitalism, the electoral mechanisms of the American bourgeoisie state have been successful in thwarting the full-blown development of a distinctively socialist campaign. Following the ideological mutilation of massive protests against an inherently exploitative system, Americans have been rewarded with Biden – a dyed-in-the-wool bourgeoisie politician who once opposed de-segregation, called on police to shoot Black Lives Matter demonstrators in the leg, rejected the smallest of concessions to the working class, vehemently supported imperialist wars and refused to commit to even the minimal reforms of the Green New Deal.
The overwhelming de-activation of revolutionary militancy in USA can be traced to certain theoretico-practical problems relating to the formation of socialist strategy. These issues and impediments have been historically constituted as a result of continual errors regarding political premises and form a consistent backdrop against which progressive projects in America have taken place. Among the multiple components which form the foundations for such an incorrect political paradigm, reformism is perhaps the most dominant, subordinating social struggles to its own theoretical dictates. At the most general level, reformism consists in a defeatist politics of uncritical surrender to the contingencies of existing conditions. Instead of acting as a driving force of history and impinging centrally upon the processes of social change, reformism crafts a type of politics which is wholly driven by historical forces.
The concrete content and specificity of reformism comprises of the erasure of the strategic goal of socialism and the corresponding initiation of efforts to slightly tweak capitalism’s internal mechanisms. These attempts at gradually re-calibrating capitalism are made through the adoption of a crass electoral politics which is theoretically uninformed and fails to learn from actual experience. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had formulated the problem of reformism as that of “parliamentary cretinism”, a destructive form of political organization antithetical to the aims of a socialist revolution. Engels defined parliamentary cretinism as “a disorder which penetrates its unfortunate victims with the solemn conviction that the whole world, its history and future, are governed and determined by a majority of votes in that particular representative body which has the honor to count them among its members, and that all and everything going on outside the walls of their house…is nothing compared to the incommensurable events hinging upon the important question, whatever it may be, just at that moment occupying the attention of their honorable House”. Similarly, Marx held that parliamentary cretinism was “that peculiar epidemic…which holds its victims spellbound in an imaginary world and robs them of all sense, all memory, and all understanding of the rough external world”.
Reformism, therefore, is the fetishization of the institutions of bourgeoisie democracy, the dissociation of political practices from the changing correlation of forces in a specific conjuncture and the concomitant belief in a succession of gradual reforms, each posed as an end in itself. The 2020 US Presidential Election can be regarded as a logical result of such a reformist policy which contributes directly to the electoral defanging of explosive class struggle. One of the maneuvers used to legitimize the flattening of class struggle into vacuous support for Biden has been the principle of “lesser of two evils”. According to this principle, any vote for a non-Biden candidate will mean an automatic victory for Trump, portrayed as a true fascist capable of destroying America’s already hollow democracy. Correspondingly, every progressive American has to vote for Biden if he/she does not want the specter of Trump to return and halt the social development of the nation.
Considering the fact that an effervescent multi-racial rebellion took place in America just a few months before the election, it seems difficult to absorb the fact that progressives continued to preach the principle of the lesser of two evils. One can locate the source of this continued support for a largely ineffective political view in the panorama of entrenched reformism in the US which failed to utilize the latent energy of extremely important protests and allowed them to peter out. Before the protests occurred, reformist organizations in USA unconditionally espoused an explicitly reformist orientation which – instead of enfolding present-day politics in the wider goal of revolution – chose to adapt to the existing situation, thus abjuring socialist ideals and counter-productively allying with mainstream ideologies. When protests broke out, these reformist organizations were at a loss to understand the socio-historic dynamics of a newly emergent revolutionary agency which foregrounded radical demands and took care of the interests of the future within the movement of the present.
Unable to successfully interact with the revolutionary potentialities of the massive rebellion, reformists reverted back to their trivial tactical objectives by peddling the lesser of two evils principle. Through this “pragmatic” principle, reformists presented the election of Joe Biden as an unavoidable, all-powerful compulsion and tinged the revolutionary subjectivity of the working class with diluted reformist demands, each considered independently of the ultimate aim of socialism. When political organizations failed to transform the experiences from the struggle into political tactics, the germinal class consciousness of the proletariat soon settled within the discursive region delimited by reformists. In this way, Biden’s path to victory was paved by the reformists who de-mobilized a rebellion to advance changes by appealing to the benevolence of a Biden presidency.
The Actuality of Revolution
From the 2020 US Election, it is evident that the Left need to construct a re-vitalized project of socialist hegemony which does not succumb to the blunders of reformism. In contradistinction to reformism, the equally unacceptable and unfruitful position of abstract and maximalist revolutionism has been presented, creating an impasse for the further advancement of revolutionary struggle. While these maximalist calls for revolution define themselves as “Marxist”, they falter when the need arrives to skillfully interweave theory with politico-practical contexts. Rather than concretizing, modifying and applying Marxism’s theoretical matrix to ever new and changing conjunctures of class struggle, abstract revolutionism dogmatizes and distorts its principles, subsequently conceiving socialism as an ideal form against which attempts to transcend capitalist society are to be measured. Like reformism, it also avoids a direct contact with material conditions, rigidly overpowering the contextual specifities of shifting conditions with the universalism of theory. In other words, it can be termed as “mechanical idealism” which prioritizes theoretical principles over the concrete struggle for revolution.
To chart the future course of revolutionary politics, we need to revisit what Vladimir Lenin said when he talked about the nature of Marxism: “Absolutely hostile to all abstract formulas and to all doctrinaire recipes, Marxism demands an attentive attitude to the mass struggle in progress, which, as the movement develops, as the class consciousness of the masses grows, as economic and political crises become acute, continually gives rise to new and more varied methods of defence and attack…Under no circumstances does Marxism confine itself to the forms of struggle possible and in existence at a given moment only, recognising as it does that new forms of struggle, unknown to the participants of the given period, inevitably arise as the given social situation changes. In this respect Marxism learns, if we may so express it, from mass practice…To attempt to answer yes or no to the question whether any particular means of struggle should be used, without making a detailed examination of the concrete situation of the given movement at the given stage of its development, means completely to abandon Marxism.”
Taking into account what Lenin said, the Left has to construct a politics of praxis which learns from the masses i.e. a kind of politics which recognizes the fact that practice cannot proceed without theory and vice versa. The two are constitutive of one another in a dialectical relationship: practice guided by a theory that will necessarily be rethought in light of the outcomes of this practice. If we try to assimilate the lessons of present-day class struggle in the US and reciprocally influence the dynamics of that struggle, the relevance of Georg Lukács’ concept of the “actuality of revolution” will certainly stand out. With the help of this conceptual tool, the absence of socialism as a strategic goal can be filled with the presence of a strong and supple theoretical architecture.
As per Lukacs, “The theory of historical materialism…presupposes the universal actuality of the proletarian revolution. In this sense, as both the objective basis of the whole epoch and the key to an understanding of it, the proletarian revolution constitutes the living core of Marxism.” Thus, the actuality of revolution organically integrates the ultimate goal of socialism into the planning of concrete action. Lukacs derived the skeletal framework of his notion of the actuality of revolution from Lenin who had written in one of his articles: “only by constantly having the ‘ultimate aim’ in view, only by appraising every step of the ‘movement’ and every reform from the point of view of the general revolutionary struggle, is it possible to guard the movement against false steps and shameful mistakes”.
Elaborating on Lenin’s brief description of the significance of the “ultimate aim”, Lukacs stated in his book Lenin: A Study on the Unity of his Thought: “The actuality of the revolution provides the key-note of a whole epoch. Individual actions can only be considered revolutionary or counter-revolutionary when related to the central issue of revolution, which is only to be discovered by an accurate analysis of the socio-historic whole. The actuality of the revolution therefore implies study of each individual daily problem in concrete association with the socio-historic whole, as moments in the liberation of the proletariat. The development which Marxism thus underwent through Lenin consists merely – merely! – in its increasing grasp of the intimate, visible, and momentous connection between individual actions and general destiny – the revolutionary destiny of the whole working class. It merely means that every question of the day – precisely as a question of the day – at the same time became a fundamental problem of the revolution.”
Unlike the static process of historical change conceptualized by reformism which is decoupled from concrete conditions, the actuality of revolution frames historical processes as an undulating series of politico-economic situations which is pregnant with revolution and crisscrossed by the complex, uneven and contradictory logic of the class struggle. When different conjunctures are conceived like in this dynamic way, the proletarian party converts itself into a collective process of learning; works to increase the speed of the subaltern classes’ spontaneous gravitation towards socialism; weeds out the ideological influence of bourgeoisie institutions; and constantly learns from and crystallizes the practical experience of the oppressed people.
Since the perspective of the actuality of revolution dissolves revolution as a distant horizon and immerses it in the interstices of contemporary conditions, it is fully cognizant of the inevitable patchiness of social transformation and starts from the here-and-now of the proletariat’s consciousness. This means that transformational changes are realized through a set of intertwined intermediate objectives which make evident the necessity for the transition to socialism, prefigure it in certain concrete aspects, dislocate capitalist society through the political percolation of socialist ideals and themselves constitute an apprenticeship and experience of workers’ power. To put it in other words, the specific aspirations of the subaltern classes is articulated within the perspective of a common goal which contains them all and at the same time transcends them: the goal of a socialist society.
The concretization of some of the theoretical underpinnings of the actuality of revolution may be listed as follows: socialists must (a) work within the existing system to reveal its inherent limitations while winning such short-term concessions as may be possible and (b) develop a counter-hegemonic project that intrinsically connects short-term specific interests to the pursuit of a socialist system and justifies necessary short-term sacrifices in terms of the strategic goal. These programmatic objectives can serve to avoid the pitfalls of reformism, avoid super-imposing the abstract exigencies of a hermetically sealed theory on the terrain of concrete struggle and navigate through the rippled territories of revolutionary politics.
With the election of Biden as the President of America, the predominantly negative role played by reformism has been starkly shown. In the foreseeable future, the ideological role of reformism in moderating the content of spontaneous outbursts of anger will continue increasing as the economic base of capitalism assumes ever more grotesque forms. Under the regime of monopoly-finance capitalism, income inequality has exponentially increased and humans have been increasingly reduced to the status of mere commodities, dispensable and endlessly exploitable. As living conditions continue to deteriorate, the Left needs to adopt a new form of politico-organizational modality which is able to move the working class in the direction of socialism and allow its smoldering rage against capitalism to be realized in the form of a revolution.
Yanis Iqbal is a student and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously published at Eurasia Review, Nov. 17, 2020
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