The End of Bourgeois Democracy
This is a communist intervention. It’s time to pull our heads out of our asses. Along with an ongoing fascisation process, capitalism-imperialism has brought the related and ever more imminent collapse of livable ecology and thus all prospects for a decent future. It is clear now that there are no meaningful or lasting solutions to the great problems of our time – economic/class inequality, patriarchy, racial oppression, nativism, war, oligarchy/plutocracy, authoritarian white nationalist fascism, and literal ecocide (the biggest issue of our or any time) – under the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of capital and empire. Nothing less than a popular eco-socialist revolution can begin to tackle these problems in a meaningful way.
The long reigning bourgeois-democratic US governance order is being revealed as a tragic and terminal atrocity. Liberal reform and democracy are on their deathbed in the U.S. That much is evident from: the constitutional murder of the Build Back Better bill and voting rights protection in Congress; the vote suppression and election nullification policies being enacted in many US states; the vicious female-enslaving Texas abortion bill; numerous state measures outlawing the honest teaching of US-American history; numerous bills criminalizing social justice protest; the coming decisive Supreme Court ruling that will reverse woman’s constitutional right to an abortion; the pathetic failure of US government to properly protect the populace from a pandemic; the right wing reign of terror being conducted against public health, election, and education officials; the coming of a Republifascist majority in Congress this fall; the distinctly possible return to power of the “instinctive fascist” Donald Trump (or the rise to power of his reptilian pandemo-fascist rival Ron DeSantis); and more that is terrible to contemplate in this failed, savagely unequal Superpower that masquerades as “the greatest country in the world.”
The US capitalist government has killed the expanded child tax credit after it reduced US child poverty by 30 percent over half a year – this as inflation takes a deadly slice out of working-class incomes and the nation’s shockingly untaxed top thousandth (the 0.1 percent) owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent and lives in obscene hyper-opulence. How despicable. The contemptible corporate media laughably designates as “moderates” the demented Dickensian Democrats (Manchin and Sinema) who voted (in the absurdly malapportioned millionaires club that is the US Senate) for the re-expansion of child poverty. “More poor children, please!”
The Democrats are always best exposed as a deeply conservative and fake-progressive ruling class party of inauthentic opposition to the nation’s fascist and eco-cidal drift when they hold high elected office. The Sleepy Joe Biden interregnum is providing yet another demonstration of this harsh reality, showing one more time that life still sucks when the not so leftmost of the dominant US capitalist parties holds the White House and nominal power in Congress. Joe Biden’s promise to Wall Street campaign funders in 2019 could stand at the top of an honest Democratic Party mission statement: “Nothing Will Fundamentally Change.” Nothing will change for the better, that is: the dirty dollar Dems’ passive resistance richly enables the ongoing collapse of the formerly normative republican-constitutional regime. It’s all so Weimar.
It is still commonplace to call the GOP a “conservative” party. It is no such thing. The Republifascists have demonstrated before, on, and since January 6, 2021 that they are radical – radical right. The Democrats, by contrast, are a deeply committed to keeping intact the norms and rule of a bourgeois “constitutional democracy” that is crumbling beneath them. They are endlessly polite and establishmentarian and thoroughly unwilling to undertake militant and radical means to save their cherished republic. They are the conservatives.
The system has taken us beyond moderation and national unity and is landing us in radical. The only question is which kind of radical? Radical right revanchism, regression, and reaction on behalf of inequality, oppression, and death under capitalism-fascism or radical Left popular revolution on behalf of equality, humanity, and life under socialism? It’s not “socialism or barbarism,” it’s (a) socialism or (b) capitalism in authoritarian, fascist form. It’s also (a) socialism or (b) extinction thanks to capitalism’s addiction (under whatever political/superstructural forms) to expansion and fossil fuels.
It’s time to stop clinging to institutions, social structures, and oppression systems that enslave. In a recent interview on Business Insider, the smart bourgeois historian Timothy Snyder rightly notes “Democrats tend to trust the very institutions that Republicans are corrupting. Republicans are the ones who, if you poll them, are more likely to say somebody’s gonna fix the election. Democrats just aren’t worried enough about this because they tend to believe the institutions are going to work, that everybody will come together, etcetera.” Beneath this polite language lay a key point: millions of “liberal” Democrats are dysfunctionally and suicidally attached to an old bourgeois-democratic electoral regime that the Republifascist Party is effectively rigging for authoritarian, white nationalist outcomes.
What Snyder doesn’t say and what very much needs to be said here is that the problems with the institutions “Democrats tend to trust” are much bigger than recent and ongoing corruption at the hands of Republicans. Full truth told, the profoundly and brilliantly anti- and un-democratic US constitutional order – a legacy of the nation’s slave origins – was by design an expertly crafted straitjacket on democracy and the common good long before the current round of rightward electoral re-engineering being carried out by the Republikaners in the name of Trump’s fascist Big Lie of a stolen election. It is a minority and class rule document by design.
But even a better and more effective democracy would be hopelessly inadequate as long as “the business community” remains in possession of the nation’s means of production, investment, distribution, communication, thereby rendering politics little more than “the shadow cast on society” (John Dewey) by capital. We must at long last stop looking for solutions to the main problems of our time under capitalism. There are none. Capitalism is about one thing and one thing only: the reign of the chaotic and never-ending accumulation of capital and profit for the inheritors and upstarts of ever-more concentrated wealth. Nothing else matters – not economic and social equality and justice, not civic decency, not public health, not ecological sustainability, not peace, not humanity, and certainly not popular sovereignty.
Capitalism is democracy, the collective deliberation and empowerment of the populace for the common good? Really? Do you know any other good jokes? “Bourgeois democracy” is the class rule of capital cloaked by nominally democratic and representative electoral and parliamentary institutions and formal rule of law. “Popular self-rule” is seen as tolerable only insofar as it does not impinge on the properly remunerative operation of the underlying class system. Lenin put it well in 1918: “bourgeois democracy…always remains, and under capitalism is bound to remain, restricted, truncated, false and hypocritical, a paradise for the rich and a snare and deception for the exploited, for the poor.” Bourgeois democracy is ultimately democracy for the bourgeoisie alone. It is cloak for the de facto class dictatorship of imperial capital. It is always seen by its owners as dispensable and a candidate for exceptional state suspension in times of real or perceived crisis like the one that is being created by capital’s own generation of a global environmental catastrophe.
“Dedicated With Fervor to the Destroying the Prospects for Human Life on Earth”
And now that dictatorship, hopelessly addicted to endless eco-cidal growth and to environmentally exterminist fossil fuels, is bringing about the literal cancellation of a decent future by turning the planet into a giant Greenhouse Gas Chamber. As Andreas Malm shows in his remarkable new book White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism, it has given rise to a renewed and intimately related fasciation process involving an unholy alliance between the white nationalist far right and “fossil capital.” Here is an at once capitalogenic and racist-fascistic death embrace promising devastation on a scale that would have horrified even Adolph Hitler. As Noam Chomsky noted two years ago in explaining why he saw the “proto-fascistic” climate denier Trump as “the most dangerous criminal in human history”:
“Are [Trump’s UkraineGate] crimes discussed a basis for impeachment? Seems so to me. Has Trump committed vastly more serious crimes? That is hardly debatable. What might be debatable is whether he is indeed the most dangerous criminal in human history (which happens to be my personal view). Hitler had been perhaps the leading candidate for this honor. His goal was to rid the German-run world of Jews, Roma, homosexuals and other “deviants,” along with tens of millions of Slav “Untermenschen.” But Hitler was not dedicated with fervor to destroying the prospects of organized human life on Earth in the not-distant future (along with millions of other species). Trump is. And those who think he doesn’t know what he’s doing haven’t been looking closely.”
Ditto for Jar Bolsonaro and numerous other fossil fascists in the world’s right-wing parties.
But let us not over-focus on the noxious politicians. Yes, Trump was doing that and will do so again if he returns to power in 2025. But he was doing so in alliance with and indeed at the behest of the fossil fuel industry, the broader fossil fuel-dependent capitalist class, and polluting industries in general. The eco-cidal death march continues under the national oil reserve-opener Biden, as it did under Obama and as it is does even in a “social democracy” like Norway, where monumental and environmentally disastrous oil extraction underwrites a generous welfare state.
Reasonable minds can disagree on the extent to which the capitalist system is fully or partially responsible for the issues I mentioned in this essay’s opening paragraph – economic/class inequality, patriarchy, racial oppression, nativism, war, imperialism, oligarchy/plutocracy, authoritarian white nationalist fascism, and ecocide. What should be beyond reasonable debate is the notion that meaningful solutions to any of these problems, including the ultimate existential menace of ecocide (which trumps all the others), are possible under the chaotic, amoral, and frankly exterminist regime of capital.
One Out of Three
We need to be in the middle of a great popular uprising against the capitalist-imperialist order, the underlying system that relentlessly assaults democracy and the common good, including the environment we all share.
We aren’t, and that’s a big problem.
Lenin defined a revolutionary situation as a society and moment where three things are in place: (i) a crisis in the old ways of elite class rule including significant divisions within the ruling class and societal chaos and division that both reflects and fuels those divisions; (ii) an aroused populace that no longer believes in the existing class rule system and has reached the point where its desire for a new society is greater than its fear of repression; (iii) a growing revolutionary vanguard with the intellectual and organizational tools and wherewithal to help lead the masses as a mighty force for the radical transformation of society.
The first precondition is increasingly in place in the US. A considerable portion of both the nation’s ruling class and its most deranged citizens has shown itself ready, willing, and able to finally trash the nation’s 24-decade record of bourgeois so-called constitutional democracy. One of the nation’s two viable and capitalist political organizations, the more structurally empowered one, has become essentially fascist. It now deserves to be called the Republifascist Party. It no longer believes in the peaceful transfer of power. It does not accept the legitimacy of the other ruling class party. It embraces racialized mob violence and vicious patriarchy. It is openly palingenetic-nationalist. It advances lawlessness in the name of law and order – a key fascist calling card. It and the other reigning party oversee a nation that is devolving further and further into ferocious hyper-inequality, political balkanization, racial hatred, deadly violence, rampant physical and mental illness, spiraling environmental degradation, rampant incivility, epidemic narcissism, spiritual death, magical thinking, widespread conspiratorial paranoia, sweeping untruth, moral collapse, medical catastrophe, and generalized mass misery and alienation. The not-so leftmost of the two viable and capitalist parties and its backers may detest and fear the Republifascists but they are badly hamstrung and straitjacketed by their attachment to a dying bourgeois “constitutional democracy.” There is widespread and credible “expert” expectation of something like “civil war” as the nation heads towards some form of implosion after if not before the 2024 elections. The nation is awash in arms and full of demented white nationalist paramilitaries, not to mention Fraternal Orders of Police and military units stocked with minds poisoned by racist, sexist, and authoritarian beliefs and character structures. “Your shining city on a hill,” says the leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party Bob Avakian, “is full of fascists.”
This is a society and governance order divided and in crisis, with the old ways of rule under extreme pressure. Elites and much of the populace are harshly “polarized” against each other, both reflecting and furthering chaos and misery for millions in the gun-saturated “homeland.” Lenin’s first precondition is being met, to no small extent.
But with some very small exceptions, the second and third conditions are not remotely in evidence, meaning that the current betting odds (more on and against gambling analogies below) are tilting strongly towards the coming radical resolution being radical right (fascist-capitalist-ecocidal) instead of radical left (eco-socialist). And the former outcome is likely terminal for humanity and other living things. On the current trajectory, the future looks very dark.
Dropping Bad Habits
Now, then, would be a good time for people to get their shit together and turn the radical moment leftward, back towards humanity. We need to drastically up our game to develop Lenin’s preconditions two and three or it’s going to be game over, possibly quite soon. Along the way, we should not give neoliberals and right-wingers a monopoly on the concept of personal responsibility. There’s a left version of the concept, after all – one where it’s one’s personal responsibility to join with others in overthrowing a rotten old order the promises only ruin and death.
Let Go of Hope in the Dominant Institutions
We can start on that path by examining and dropping some dysfunctional mental, intellectual, and behavioral habits. At the risk of repeating myself, we must first let go of hope – not of all hope, but of childish hope for meaningful solutions and democracy under capitalism and bourgeois democracy. These dominant structures and institutions are leading us to doom – to ecocide, war, and what might be called (see Endnote 1) late fascism. Searching for solutions within the existing dominant institutional frameworks is magical thinking. It always was but now the shit has really hit the fan. The frontiers have closed. The jig is up. The reckoning has come. If you are still hoping to reform society and politics and achieve decent life-saving things under and the through this system you are worse than someone who can’t leave an abusive relationship because you are helping keep billions of your fellow human beings yoked to the endless abuse of capital and its empire. Get it through your head that the profits system is a lethal class dictatorship hard-wired to end life on Earth while subjecting billions the world over to racial, gender, national, ethnic, and military oppression. The pretend socialist Senator Bernie “Our Revolution” Sanders promising to maybe help primary challengers to Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema in future elections is a laughably tiny blip on the screen of the actual revolution we need.
It’s worth bearing mind here that the main current underlying social-structural problem we face is capitalism as such and not merely “neoliberal capitalism” or “unregulated capitalism” or “post-Keynesian capitalism,” or “corporate capitalism” or “global capitalism,” or so-called free market capitalism. Drop the qualifications and prefixes. In all its shifting phases and forms, the real problem is capitalism and its Siamese partner imperialism. We don’t seek a return to the “Keynesian” “Golden Age” and “thirty glorious” years of 1945-1975, which brought about the true birth of the disastrous “Anthropocene” (really the Capitalocene) along with a massive expansion of global economic activity and eco-cannibalism.
We must get beyond individualism and self-obsession, question exaggerated and hyper-defensive ego, and challenge our reluctance to engage with others. Many of us with liberal, progressive, and even radical Left values are too much like house cats – impossible to herd and unite. Cats are cool, but it will take concerted, organized, and dogged, dedicated solidarity and collective action to make the revolution we need. (Meow less and bark more?) Over-immersion in purely individual, private, and self-satisfying pursuits easily degenerates into parasitism in a rich nation at the top of the world capitalist food chain. An attitude of “I me me mine” is indefensible in a planet teetering on the edge of epic political and environmental catastrophe, a world in which billions “live” (and die) on less than $2 a day and untold millions are already being displaced by the deepening climate catastrophe. It’s a good time to connect with the moral wisdom of the old Solomon Burke lyric: “none of us are free, one of us is chained.” We should remember that the atomized bourgeois world in which we undertake our beloved private pursuits is the product of collective human labor power, which makes the chairs on which we sit, the roofs over our head, the screens on which we watch another Netflix movie, and so on. Our excessive and reactionary individualism is socially produced, enabled, and encouraged in more ways than one. It’s a good time to remember Marx’s critique of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.
The Passionate Intensity Gap
We need to confront our own and others’ crippling passivity. Way too many USAers with liberal, progressive, and radical values are absurdly inert and submissive in a country where neofascists are highly activated and ready to struggle fiercely for their noxious aims. “The best,” Yeats once wrote, “lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” It’s pathetic. Frederick Douglass was right when he said that “power never concedes without a fight.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was correct to observe that “the ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence of the good people.” The right should not be more angry, ardent, organized, determined, and ready to politically act than people in the center and on the left today.
Enough with Pessimism, Gramsci’s Maxim, and the Crystal Mandarin Ball
We need to drop our disabling fatalism, determinism, and pessimism and come down off the Mandarin, odds-making perch. Many if not most of the left-identified people I know have taken the lesson of the history they’ve lived and studied to be that popular revolution for a just, decent, and sustainable society – for socialism on the path to communism – is an unachievable pie-in-the-sky pipedream. The reasons they cite for coming to this sad conclusion are many and diverse and often seem quite compelling. At the end of the day, however, their deterministic pessimism and fatalism is commonly a projection of personal depression and inertia. It is both understandable and irrational. Let’s say the chances of carrying out what Dr. King called “the real issue to be faced…the radical reconstruction of society itself,” are 3 or 2 in 10. Why bring them down to zero in 10 by giving up in advance? It doesn’t make any sense and it is frankly irresponsible in a time when Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’ ominous 1848 warning is now undeniably on-point: it’s “the revolutionary reconstitution of the society at large” or “the common ruin” of all. The climate science on this point is very clear. If nothing less than radical reconstruction/revolutionary reconstitution is now required, and it is, then the existential path is clear.
Radicals like Marx, Engels, Rosa Luxembourg, Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, Frantz Fanon, Che Guevera, and Fidel Castro were not mandarins sitting on a perch above it all and calculating the odds of a decent outcome for humanity. They dedicated their lives to “bending the arc of history” (Dr. King’s phrase) in a radical direction. Could it end in failure and disaster, both personally and societally? Of course it could.
Marx and Engels did not take their paradigm leap, the “science” of historical materialism, to mean that we could rely on the inexorable underlying “laws of history” to magically deliver socialism and then communism as the inevitable outcome of a structurally inevitable class struggle. They did not take Marx’s observation that “men make history, but they do not do so under circumstances of their own choosing” to mean that history was beyond human agency. They took it to indicate that people should work to understand the historical-material circumstances they face in order to more effectively and desirably act on the young Marx’s existential “discover” that the point is not merely to interpret the world but to change it.
It’s not about the crystal ball, comrades. Nobody cares if you “just don’t see good prospects for revolution.” That’s an excuse for passivity. So, what… give up? “Eco-fascism here we come Dystopia Now!”? Really? The only thing nuttier than fighting for socialist revolution is not doing so. If you are right and the prospects are bad, the key question is what are you doing to improve them? Why grant personal responsibility to the enemy?
Now would be a good time for left thinkers to drop the ritual invocation of the onetime Italian communist Antonio Gramsci’s maxim “pessimism of the mind, optimism of the will.” Emotions and cognitions are all bound up with each other and the notion that one is going to maintain a positive spirit and “will” in the revolutionary struggle while holding and advancing negative and pessimistic beliefs about chances for revolutionary change is absurd. Intellectual pessimism about humanity’s future under capitalism is highly justifiable, of course, but intellectual pessimism about humanity as such and its capacity to radically replace capitalism with something much better is not advised and can be expected to undermine revolutionary “will” (a word that should probably be dropped on the left in light of its irrational fascist usage in 1930s and 1940s Germany.) Some searching optimism of the radical Left mind can help feed some optimism of the revolutionary spirit.
(The optimism of mind and spirit we need to maintain must contain the capacity for resilience in the face of defeats. The slogan “The people united, will never be defeated” is wrong. Even when united, the people will face one defeat after another until they win. Still, the people, resilient, can ultimately prevail, and must never stop fighting. Rosa Luxembourg used to say that the people only have [to] win the socialist revolution once: “you lose, you lose, you lose, you lose, you lose, you lose, you lose, you win.” In reality, though, as Mao pointed out, the struggle continues after the/a revolution is won, for the battle against class rule and capitalist culture and consciousness will continue in the socialist era. If it does not, capitalism will be restored.)
Beyond Mutual Aid and Charity
Intimately related to our excessive atomization, passivity, and pessimism is our dysfunctional tendency to over-focus on very small and partial, even fake solutions under the exterminist regime of capital. We will not get to the existentially required revolution through mutual aid and charity. It’s hard for any decent person with money to spare to not send cash to organizations that provide critical assistance to some among the billions of people oppressed by capitalism and its partners imperialism, racism, sexism, nativism, nationalism, militarism and ecocide. And it’s difficult for decent people not to engage one’s physical and moral energies in efforts to directly assist others struggling with the consequences of “our” inhumane and eco-cidal order. But the crises and misery created by anarchic, chaotic and relentlessly destabilizing capitalism are far beyond the capacities of charity and mutual aid and the top priority by far is the development of revolutionary movements to radically replace capitalism with socialism. Mutual aid and charity are necessities, of course, but we should be on guard against making a virtue out of necessity. And we should not think that organizations dedicated to revolution have the capacity to feed, clothe, educate, house. and otherwise take care of millions under the horrific conditions imposed by capitalism and imperialism.
“When I give food to the poor,” the Brazilian archbishop Dom Helder Camara wrote, “they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” Be communists. “The poor have no food” because of capitalism. Billions will continue to go without food and more despite the best efforts of charity and mutual aid until capitalism is radically replaced with socialism. We are not in a Charles Dickens novel, waiting for Mr. Brownlow to save poor Oliver Twist or for Ebenezer Scrooge to be visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. We seek what Marx and Engels called for nine years after the publication of Oliver Twist: “a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large.”
Beyond Tiny Little Demands and Single Issues
Getting to the root of things (the literal meaning of radical understanding) means rejecting tiny little demands and single-issue politics. Trying to get your local city council to declare a “climate emergency” or change the name of a street sign is small stuff as we learn the latest news about the scale and scope of the capitalogernic climate catastrophe. We have maybe ten years to keep the planet livable. We must develop the power to shut down the whole damn system. The goal is not merely to increase taxes on the rich or even to fully redistribute their personal and institutional wealth but rather to expropriate them and abolish their chaotic and exterminist class rule profits system, and to replace that system with a material base and political superstructure dedicated to the common good and the transcendence of class rule.
Much of what passes for social movement politics these days is tied to corporate and foundation money with strings attached. The grants require painfully limited and narrow action on just one or a few of the many overlapping social and/or environmental problems resulting from the underlying and intertwined systems of bourgeois ownership, empire, and racial and gender oppression. The causes that get funded are often quite good – guaranteed income pilot projects in a certain city, increased employment opportunities for people with felony records in a given state, and the like (the list of such noble causes and programs is long) – but the focus is trifling compared to the master problems of our era. (None of which are bigger than capitalogenic ecocide, with climate change in the lead, the biggest “single issue” of our or any time: there’s no properly funded schools, no decent ex-offender programs, and no social justice on a dead planet.)
Widen Your Audience
Along the way, we must resist the temptation to habitually engage in incestuous “inside baseball” discourse aimed only at other members of the professional and intellectual class. True left “intellectuals” write and speak with a broader audience in mind. They seek to tell the truth about things that matter to everyday people who care and do something about those things. They communicate in ways that normal people outside the specialized intellectual class can understand. They also reject endless mental diversion. We must keep our eyes on the prize, which is developing and organizing mass revolutionary consciousness, not joining yet another online group where people endlessly debate things the meaning of a letter that Karl Kautsky wrote to an Austro-Hungarian anarchist or the precise meaning of a 200-word sentence in Marx’s Grundrisse. It’s true that the academic intelligentsia is absurdly ignorant and dismissive of socialist and communist thought, writing, theory, and practice, but much of the discourse that goes on among socialist thinkers is antiquarian, hobbyist, arcane, incestuous, boring, and/or purely academic, divorced from any concrete or inspiring relationship to real life popular struggles in the present moment.
Speaking of the present moment, we must reject fantasies of future rebellion when “things get really bad” as in “we’ll all take to the streets after Trump and the Republifascists steal the election in 2024-25” or “when the environmental collapses society we’ll start a new eco-socialist society, building up from the ashes.” “If the Supreme Court undoes Roe v. Wade, people will protest!” Such future-living is a way of rationalizing passive resistance in the present moment. Waiting to organize and act until after fascists take power is absurd. The whole point of their takeover would be precisely to crush any and all popular resistance, to make popular uprisings against capitalism-imperialism impossible. As for waiting on ecological catastrophe…seriously? For one thing, capitologenic eco-catastrophe appears to be underway. Second of all, who wants to turn a poisoned planet upside down and more equitably share out the slices of a poisoned pie. Who wants a revolution on a dead or dying planet? Thirdly, why assume that capitalism goes away after environmental collapse. “Catabolic capitalism” (the left geographer Craig Collins’ excellent phrase) is quite capable of parasitically profiting off decline and descent until the very last. There’s no good excuse for not making the radical replacement of capitalism the goal right now. And, by the way, is there really any doubt that the current right-wing US high court is going to trash Roe v. Wade unless millions take to the streets now to make it clear that this society will not be able to conduct business as usual if it dares re-impose the female slavery of forced motherhood?
We must also be on guard against declaring checkmate before we’ve taken a pawn. We will not get to the classless society beyond the rule of capital and its managers without a socialist revolution crafted for continuing struggle on the path to communism. It’s fun and even at times useful to work up schemes for classless workplaces beyond the capitalist division of labor and to design democratic, even socialist constitutions that people should get behind. Both to inspire mass action and to counter the constant reactionary claim that radical leftists are only “against” things and not “for anything,” it is worthwhile, even essential to have both a list of immediate demands and a coherent sense of what “the radical reconstruction of society itself” would and should look like. Left videos and books “on post-capitalism” can be fun and even useful. But there’s no getting to post-capitalism/-imperialism without mass mobilization, organization, revolutionary consciousness, cadres, and, well, a revolution – the topics of Lenin’s justly famous 1902 pamphlet What is the Done? There’s no worthwhile mental short cuts past the nitty gritty work that activists do.
In seeking to make this revolution to end class oppression (and all the collateral oppression structures that go with class rule like white on rice), we should drop the workerist habit of sentimentalizing and even romanticizing the holy proletariat. In their shining 1848 document The Communist Manifesto, two young peripatetic bourgeois Germans straddling The Age of Revolution and The Age of Capital prophesied that the proletariat, brought into being by capital, would be the bourgeoisie’s gravediggers. But this was not a call for non-proletarians to follow other pursuits – like, say, making every single dish in Cold War French chef Julia Child’s recipe book in one year or writing twenty essays on the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) during the 1930s – while waiting for the toiling masses to wake up and smell the revolutionary socialist coffee. And the young Germans did not mean to fetishize or worship proletarians – a great disservice to proletarians. People who replicate the anti-scientific idiocy of race- and/or-gender “standpoint” epistemology (based on the openly moronic and unscientific claim that “knowledge stems from social position”) in relation to the working class might want to consider how much time the bourgeois sons Marx and Engels spent trying to organize and guide proletarian struggles. Here is an interesting line in The Communist Manifesto, a document that leaps out to me with new or forgotten insights each time I re-read it:
“Finally, in times when the class struggle nears the decisive hour, the progress of dissolution going on within the ruling class, in fact within the whole range of old society, assumes such a violent, glaring character, that a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands. Just as, therefore, at an earlier period, a section of the nobility went over to the bourgeoisie, so now a portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat, and in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole.”
Is this not the history of Left revolutionary leadership from Marx and Engels through Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara, and Fidel Castro among others to no small extent?
Marx, for his part, clearly and with good reason, saw the proletariat as a/the new revolutionary class, by which he meant that its liberation from exploitative wage-slavery would mark the end of the capitalist order. He sensed that a proletariat thinking and acting not just in but for itself would spell the doom of the bourgeoisie. But Marx did not see this revolutionary class coming to the necessary conclusions simply on its own, out of the dialectical logic of its social historical and material situation. He saw an essential role for theoretically and informationally armed bourgeois and petit-bourgeois class traitors “who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical moment as a whole.” And, of course, Marx and Engels spent countless hours trying to impart their international-socialist ideas to the proletarian movements of their time.
One and hundred and seventy-four years after The Communist Manifesto, no group or party has succeeded in convincing the workers of the world to unite in common opposition to the bourgeois order. It remains a noble goal and could happen. The negation of the proletariat’s exploited status and position would in fact be a great revolution. But anyone who is pinning all their hopes on the experience and consciousness of proletarians is a fool. Time is running out on humanity as a whole and we need anti-capitalist converts, comrades, class traitors from all walks of life. It’s not about subjective “class truth” and “standpoint” any more than its about subjective race or ethnic “truth/standpoint” or subjective gender “truth/standpoint” or subjective generational “truth/standpoint.” It’s about the objective and indeed climate-scientific fact that the capitalist system is pushing humanity to the brink of full on material and ecological catastrophe and authoritarian implosion. We have a short window of time to extract our hearts and minds from the interrelated sewers of conservatism, reformism, small- and single-issue-ism, individualism, distraction/diversion, passivity, pessimism/fatalism/determinism, future-ism, quick-fix short-cut-ism, and standpoint subjectivism. For what it’s worth, I’ve spent years wandering around in many of those sewers and a few more along the way.
1. “Palingenetic” is derived from “palingenesis.” According to Wikipedia, “Palingenesis (/ˌpælɪnˈdʒɛnəsɪs/; also palingenesia) is a concept of rebirth or re-creation, used in various contexts in philosophy, theology, politics, and biology. Its meaning stems from Greek palin, meaning ‘again’, and genesis, meaning ‘birth’.” Andreas Malm imports the word from the leading fascism historian Roger Griffin’s observation that classic historical fascism’s core belief is that, in Malm’s words, “the nation must, above all else, be re-born. The nation in question [under classic historical fascism] was not a constitutional entity defined by rights and the obligations of citizens, but instead conceived as an organic community, the patrimony of a race or culture or civilization united by heritage and blood….in the eyes of fascists, the noble nation had to be snatched from its deathbed. Over it hovered the existential threat, in the form of geopolitical demotion, military humiliation, racial miscegenation, economic reduction, loss of identity, cultural degeneracy, ideological deviancy or some other grim reaper: the nation had to be rescued and given a new birth,” Andreas Malm, White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Dangers of Fossil Fascism (London: Verso, 2021), 227. For a brilliant critique of Griffin’s (and other “fascism experts’”) belief that palingenetic nationalist “fascism is a spent force” specific to 20th Century interwar and WWII Europe, see Malm, 236-253. Consistent with the warnings of historians Geoff Eley and Timothy Snyder, Malm suggests that current and deepening ecological catastrophes could well generate the sort of crises that give birth to fascism – what we might call “late fascism” – and not just in Europe.
2. This is very different, I think, from Bertrand Russell’s flawed perspective on the proletariat in his 1937 essay “On the Superior Virtue of the Oppressed.” Opposed to the socialist sentimentalization of people at the bottom and on the margins of society, Russell wrote this about what he thought was Marx and Marxists’ excessive love for the working class:
“Admiration of the proletariat is very modern. The eighteenth century, when it praised “the poor,” thought always of the rural poor. Jefferson’s democracy stopped short at the urban mob; he wished America to remain a country of agriculturists. Admiration of the proletariat, like that of dams, power stations, and airplanes, is part of the ideology of the machine age. Considered in human terms, it has as little in its favor as belief in Celtic magic, the Slav soul, women’s intuition, and children’s innocence. If it were indeed the case that bad nourishment, little education, lack of air and sunshine, unhealthy housing conditions, and overwork produce better people than are produced by good nourishment, open air, adequate education and housing, and a reasonable amount of leisure, the whole case for economic reconstruction would collapse, and we could rejoice that such a large percentage of the population enjoys the conditions that make for virtue. But obvious as this argument is, many Socialist and Communist intellectuals consider it de rigueur to pretend to find the proletariat more amiable than other people, while professing a desire to abolish the conditions which, according to them, alone produce good human beings. Children were idealized by Wordsworth and un-idealized by Freud. Marx was the Wordsworth of the proletariat; its Freud is still to come.”
This was not Russel’s finest moment. There was no contradiction in socialists and communists simultaneously admiring workers and wanting to abolish the conditions that gave rise to the working class/proletariat. Socialists and communists have always wanted to liberate workers and the poor from miserable conditions. They hope to build a society in which the egalitarian ideas they rightly associate with the proletarian struggle would be embodied in a postcapitalist society. They have never thought that virtue depends on the existence of a proletariat. They merely argue that the good qualities they associate with the working class and a proletarian revolution would inform and guide the new social order they wished to build. Russell was wrong about Marx: the founder of “scientific socialism” did not idealize the proletariat but attempted both to learn from it and to teach it, trying to impart his understanding of how and why it was a revolutionary class while working to build organizations (the Communist League the first International) making the proletariat into such a class. Marx was of course fully aware that “bad nourishment, little education, lack of air and sunshine, unhealthy housing conditions, and overwork” and more (including the relentless alienation, injury, and despotism experienced by workers in the “hidden abode of [capitalist] production”) exercised a stunting, even dehumanizing impact on proletarians, placing limits on their capacity for self-liberation without the assistance and guidance of socialist organizations and activists including “bourgeois ideologists” come over to the proletarian cause – people like him and his financial planner Engels. At the same time, Russell missed how the proletariat’s experience and situation generated an admirable and instructive interdependence, communalism and solidarity and insulation from the arrogance, narcissism, individualism, indifference, and unreality of many in the pampered and privileged classes. One wonders if Russell ever worked in a mine, mill, or factory. If he had, we might have found much more to rightly admire in the proletariat.
Paul Street is an independent radical-democratic policy researcher, journalist, historian, author and speaker based in Iowa City, Iowa, and Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of eight books to date: Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: a Living Black Chicago History (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010); (with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011); and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014). Hollow Resistance: Obama, Trump, and the Politics of Appeasement (CounterPunch Books, September 2020). Paul writes regularly for Counterpunch and Dandelion Salad. Help Paul Street keep writing here and/or here.
Originally published at Counterpunch, Jan. 28, 2022
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