On the Necessity and Possibility of Revolution

The following text is a response to FD's article in IP 43, “With the crisis of capitalism, what is the perspective for a new society?”

The reference, in the title of FD's very thought-provoking text, to "the crisis" might lead one to expect an examination of "economic" phenomena, but the crisis here referenced is situated rather more on the level of alienation, of the increasingly de-humanizing nature of the specifically capitalist social form in its phase of historical decline; that is to say, of the increasing gap between species being (or, alternatively, what is required to fulfill the needs of humankind) and social being.

Necessity Of Revolution

For me, the heart of the discussion in this text concerns the question of the historical necessity of the communist revolution in Marxist theory. The increasing decline of capitalism into technologically advanced barbarism threatens the entire human species, all other species, and indeed the entire biosphere of the earth. This contemporary reality establishes the necessity of anti-capitalism, which is to say, communist, revolution. "But", asks F., "are we talking about an ineluctable process?" That is, what kind of necessity are we talking about here? The question is really a philosophical one.

A number of traditional Marxists have claimed that the necessity of the communist revolution is of a sort which they call "historical necessity", and there are certainly remarks in various (mostly ‘early’) texts by Marx and Engels that lend support to such claims. Was this nothing more than the "Hegelian legacy", or was it rather also due in part to immaturity, of both the capitalist social reality, and the theoretical critique of that "political economy" Marx made his life's work? FD explicitly rejects this type of "historical necessity".

In fact, the "Hegelian legacy" is not the only factor leading various traditional Marxists to believe in the "historical necessity" of the communist revolution. A number of non-Hegelian Marxists have been led to believe that Marx's mature, "economistic", "objectivist" theoretical work (Grundrisse, Capital, etc.) forms a kind of "science" of society and history, a science which clearly establishes the inevitability of communism. This "scientistic" vision, in which Marxist dialectical materialism is a positive science complete with “laws” that govern all social activity, became dominant within the Second International, the Third International, and even the communist left, both its Italian and German-Dutch varieties. As far as I know, it is still dominant in the Bordigist milieu and in some councilist tendencies, and not only there.

The vision here is that Marx established that capitalism is destined to decline and collapse, that the inextinguishable tendency to the historical decline of the rate of profit of capital will lead to increasing economic crises and social convulsions which will cause the capitalist class to increasingly attack the living conditions of the ever-growing numbers of the working class, which will result in increasing resistance and collective struggle by the workers, leading to a revolutionary situation. (For the Leninists, the class struggle's development gives rise to the Party's development, making the revolution possible; while for the anti-Leninists, there is no such role for any party, the revolution being seen as a spontaneous outgrowth of the class struggle.) A given revolutionary uprising may be unsuccessful, but if capitalism is not abolished, the necessity of revolution will remain (and intensify), further uprisings will inevitably come about, and, eventually, a successful revolution will result.

FD distinguishes two historical visions within the revolutionary movement. He calls one "evolutionist", the other "voluntarist". The former "... sees the emergence of a new society on the basis of the premises of capitalist society itself. Here, the question of consciousness is not even posed; a strict determinism reigns, reducing the movement to communism to a simple kind of productivism, and interpreting Marxist theory as an explanation of the ineluctable laws of motion of society. The other vision ... insists on the conscious activity of the proletariat as the key to change -- though different interpretations exist with respect to the level of consciousness required, the origins of that consciousness, and the way in which it is generated."

What FD terms the "evolutionist" vision is quite similar to what I above called a "scientistic" vision. It could also with reason be described as "objectivist", "determinist", and "reductionist". It would seem to be clear that we all want to reject this traditional, orthodox Marxist perspective. Does that mean that we all by default adhere to what FD calls the "voluntarist" vision? The problem is that there are many "voluntarist" visions. Anarchist voluntarism, which completely neglects the state of development of society's productive forces, believing that anti-capitalist revolution is possible at any time in history, gets lumped together with Leninism, as well as with whatever non-"evolutionist" vision we might want to defend today. This is not satisfactory, it seems to me.

The view that the "emergence of a new society [rests] on the basis of the premises of capitalist society itself" -- which FD attributes to the evolutionist vision -- is, I would argue, an essential thesis of Marxism, one that even "voluntarist" Marxists would defend. The development of capitalism prepares the way for communism, it makes the latter an historical possibility, by developing the productive forces to the point where it is possible to eradicate scarcity for the entire human species. This is a matter of the "objective" conditions of capitalist society. This thesis separates non-"evolutionist" Marxists from genuine voluntarists, both anarchists and utopians. Genuine voluntarists take into account only subjective conditions, consciousness – and even then, typically, only partially – while non-"evolutionist" Marxists take into account both the subjective and the objective conditions, both consciousness and "political economic" conditions. The problem, for developing a new Marxist vision adequate to the 21st century, is how to balance the subjective and the objective forces in a unified revolutionary theory.

Any coherent Marxist theory walks a fine line between determinism and ‘indeterminism’ (the antithesis of determinism). Marx theorized how social reality and social activity could be explained in terms of the development of human productive forces and the class relations and interests of the various members of the society. These factors, and the class struggles that ensue from them, are held to be the ‘motor’ of social change throughout the history of class society. As FD has it, they ‘regulate’ social activity; they are ‘determinant’. This isn’t determinism, but it’s not that far from it either, at least as compared with the various religious or mystical ‘indeterminist’ visions. FD: “The fundamental, finally decisive, process [in the course that history takes] is the development of the material and social forces of production.” But at the same time: “History is not left to chance, but it is also not regulated by a pre-determined and inflexible necessity.”

While the “evolutionist” historical vision discussed earlier would defend the ‘inflexible necessity’ of the course of history, the “voluntarist” vision, as FD says, insists on the role of consciousness in the process. But consciousness by itself does not contradict determinism and socio-economic necessity. In fact, Marx explained how consciousness in class society was largely determined – or at least regulated – by material class interests and conditions. For the evolutionists, consciousness as such is a mere reflection of one’s class interests and conditions, nothing more.

FD writes: “… Marx said, history follows a certain course, a general line of development, within which the consciousness and will of individuals has only played a modest role, at least until now.” This is a very important point. Human consciousness and ‘free will’ (the will of individuals) develop, evolve through history. Their role in the historical process tends to grow over time. The progressive decline of the reign of natural necessity over human activity throughout the course of history is a concomitant, the flip side, of this development of consciousness and free will, which includes also scientific and technical knowledge and their application.

But while the influence of natural necessity diminishes, the role of socio-economic necessity comes to assume a greater influence. This is especially so within the capitalist historical epoch. The domination of society by the law of value, which is really a law of social processes and relations, increases with the transition to the real domination of capital. The real domination of capital over society essentially comes to replace the previous domination by nature. Reification of capitalist social relations gradually takes hold over the consciousness of all classes and layers of society. Those social relations come to seem intransigent, even permanent, to all who find themselves subject to them.

To settle the question of the necessity of the communist revolution, then, it seems to me that the kind of necessity concerned is not historical, in either a teleological or a ‘scientific’ sense; rather, it is practical. Given humankind’s material, practical needs, and given the reality of the threat posed by capitalism to those needs, the revolution is a necessity, period. It is a question of human (and biospheric) survival, which reality calls forth a tendency to a growing collective refusal to tolerate increasing, technologically advanced, barbarism and environmental degradation. This question of survival is of course analogous to the problem of survival humankind has previously faced. But in the past it was a question of survival in the face of natural disasters, dangers and threats. Now it is a question of survival in the face of the disasters, dangers and threats posed by an increasingly out of control, yet man-made and man-directed, socio-economic system. There is no historical necessity or teleological process involved in this vision, simply the practical, material needs of humankind.

Possibilty Of Revolution

It is the global proletariat’s consciousness of these needs, and their collective will to pursue their fulfillment in the face of the increasingly barbaric reality of capitalist ‘progress’ which make the communist revolution possible. The collective will to pursue their common needs is something that is forged in open struggle, in resistance to the depredations of capital. For me, this collective will of the working class is inseparable from the class’ consciousness; in fact, I consider it to be an essential aspect of that consciousness. It is a serious mistake, as far as I am concerned, to separate the collective ‘consciousness’ from the collective ‘will’ of the working class (as the Italian communist left traditionally has, for example). For consciousness, in this sense, would be reduced to mere awareness or contemplation, that is, to the bourgeois form of consciousness typical of the period of capitalist historic decline; a form thoroughly analyzed and critiqued by Georg Lukacs in his “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” (found in his History and Class Consciousness). For any adequate Marxist theory today, the class consciousness of the proletariat is essentially (but not only) practical: it is oriented to collective practice, to open struggle, towards the historical abolition of capital, and it largely arises directly out of the experience of collective struggle against the ruling capitalist class. Class consciousness, then, encompasses atleast (i) a clear collective awareness of our common human needs and aspirations, (ii) a clear collective awareness of the socio-economic context in which the working class finds itself, and (iii) a collective will to pursue the satisfaction of these needs in the face of the endless obstacles that the process of capital, mired in permanent crisis, places in the way of such satisfaction.

Capital has its own needs, and among these is the need for (the members of) the working class to subsume their human needs to the needs of the perpetuation of the process of capital. Those human needs are (in large part) not met under capitalism, but capital requires that the subjects whose needs they are do not acquire an awareness that it is precisely the ongoing process of capital that prevents the fulfilling of those needs. That is why the ideological agents of capitalist rule go to such great links to divert, to distract, and to confuse the masses of the working class from achieving such an awareness. Information overload and ideological incoherence are the order of the day in the current conditions of communications technology advanced acceleration. In this confusing situation, in which whole economic sectors are displaced or arise in a relative blink of the eye, in which the contours of the classes are constantly shifting, in which the state is continuing to offload its role as provider of social security for all, in which the realm of fantasy and ‘virtuality’ is rapidly expanding and becoming increasingly ‘real’, it becomes increasingly difficult for the working class to find its way out of this swamp and to acquire a critical awareness that it is the process and relations of capital that stand in the way of the fulfilling of their needs.

It is not only the collective will to resist the demands of capital that is forged in open struggle. The other two elements of class consciousness referred to above – awareness of our common human needs, and awareness of our social context – are also largely forged in open struggle. When such struggle occurs, new truths are directly learned on a mass scale, truths about what workers (and others in their class) have in common, and truths about the nature of the capitalist social system they confront. (At the same time, once a certain level of awareness of the social context is achieved through struggle, further understanding can occur outside of struggle, but it is always in relation to coming struggles.) As long as the struggle continues to move forward, the more of these truths are learned, the more that class consciousness is advanced. And to the extent that the militants of the struggle are able to spread the truths they have uncovered to others in their class, the more they are able to push forward this development of class consciousness even further. This is one place where the advancement of communications technology currently being developed by capital can be turned back against it by its ‘gravediggers’.

So the continued development of class consciousness would appear to rest on the working class’ willingness to engage in open struggle against the ruling capitalist class. We know that such struggle is inevitable as long as capital continues to develop, and especially as capital remains mired in a condition of permanent crisis. However, this struggle can remain limited to small numbers of workers at any given moment, or, involving larger numbers of workers, it can remain limited to the restricted forms and channels that the ruling class attempts to impose on it. As long as this situation holds, workers will remain defeated and demoralized, and the truths they learn in their struggles will remain limited, leading at best to the negative conclusion that these limited, defensive struggles “don’t pay”, that they are ineffective.

In such a situation, some parts of the class will, under the inluence of one of the dominant ideologies, conclude that class struggle is invariably impotent. Only a minority are likely to conclude that the struggle must move to a higher level, to generalization to as much of the class as possible, and to open rejection of all legal and other restrictions in the way of such generalization. The larger part will likely remain doubtful and distrustful of struggle that goes further, struggle that involves more risk, more danger, that requires greater commitment. They will ask why they should trust other proletarians from other places aren't familiar with as opposed to their own ruling class with whom they are very familiar and on whom they depend for their capitalist subsistence. Why should they abandon their existing condition for an unknown venture?

Marxism has, since its origin, always had to face these questions, questions which have led many serious militants to reject it. The response of Marxism has been to argue that history is essentially a matter of change, of social change, but also change of consciousness, change of attitudes and opinions. Men’s (humankind’s) circumstances change, whether as a result of the playing out of the trajectory of the mode of production they find themselves within, or as a result of certain ‘accidental’ or chance factors. These changes can have an enormous impact on their consciousness and attitudes, which in turn can lead them to act in ways previously unimaginable. It is Marxism’s comprehension of the trajectory of the capitalist mode of production in its epoch of historical decline that leads its defenders to the belief that the ever increasing misery, alienation and barbarism that capitalism is bound to inflict on humanity will bring about, at some point or another, such a massive change (or alteration, as Marx put it in The German Ideology) in the attitudes and consciousness of the working class that will tip the scales away from the fear of the unknown, fear of freedom, etc., and towards a practical determination to eliminate the social relations of capital, in favour of a free world human community.

It is one thing to be in active antagonism with the social relations constituting a mode of production and social system, and quite another thing to be practically orientated towards the creation of an entirely different social system (or whatever else one proposes replacing the old system with). The possibility of an entirely different social formation must be clearly envisaged before any significant part of the class will begin acting in a way which indicates that they have revolutionary intent, or that they form the beginnings of a class-for-itself. This is not to say that the detailed structure of such a social formation must be clearly envisaged; rather, it is simply the possibility that some or other clearly different social formation could replace capitalist society that needs to be believed. The concrete understanding that “another world is possible”, as long as it really is another, non-capitalist world, is important for the working class to come to in its collective consciousness. (See RV's text on 'the visibility of the revolutionary project' in IP 44.)

It will be, in fact, in the course of the working class’ struggles against capital and its ruling classes that the formation in their consciousness that another world, a post-capitalist social formation, is really (practically) possible, will come into being. That is because the possibility of transcending capitalism is to be found in the ways in which workers tend to relate to each other when they engage in common struggle against the demands of capital and its rulers. The solidarity, the fraternity, the equality, the community, the self-organization and class autonomy, these are all hallmarks of any post-capitalist society, and they are to be found, sometimes blooming, sometimes disappearing, in the course of various struggles of the working class in capitalist society today. As struggles develop and extend through the class, these relationships arise, and the further this develops, the clearer is the understanding forged by those involved that a post-capitalist society is really (practically) possible, and that it is their own conscious, collective activity that makes it possible.


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