Revolution and the State

A relatively new current in communist thought–and one that I subscribe to–is the notion that a revolution must distance itself from the seizure and control of State power.  Or, at the very least, a revolution that does seize the State must take immediate measures to destroy the State as the dominant centralization of power, and disperse power over politics, economics, and society to the common people and the communities they organize themselves in.  This current is a predictable reaction against the catastrophic failures of 20th century socialism, both in its inability to sustain itself against capitalism, and in its violent totalitarian excesses.

One of the first writings I read which really emphasized this idea was an essay by Slavoj Zizek, a Slovenian philosopher and “reborn communist,” irreverently titled “Only Communism Can Save Liberal Democracy,” and written in October 2011.  Here, he paraphrased the French communist intellectual Alain Badiou :

Alain Badiou described three distinct ways for a revolutionary – or radical emancipatory – movements to fail.

First, there is, of course, a direct defeat: one is simply crushed by the enemy forces.

Second, there is defeat in the victory itself: one wins over the enemy (temporarily, at least) by way of taking over the main power-agenda of the enemy (the goal is simply to seize state power, either in the parliamentary-democratic way or in a direct identification of the Party with the State).

On the top of these two versions, there is a third, perhaps most authentic, but also most terrifying, form of failure: guided by the correct instinct that every attempt to consolidate the revolution into a form of State power represents a betrayal of the revolution, but unable to invent and impose on social reality a truly alternative social order, the revolutionary movement engages in a desperate strategy of protecting its purity by the “ultra-leftist” resort to destructive terror.

The first path to failure is self explanatory.

The second is a method that reflects the typical moderates’ argument against revolution–that even if there is victory, the revolutionaries will be “just as bad” as the people they overthrow.  “They call it a ‘revolution’ for a reason!” and so on.  And of course, if the post-revolution social order is not significantly different in the way it constructs the relations between people, it certainly upholds this notion of revolution as pointless.  But this failure is not inevitable–indeed, the whole point of revolutionary struggle is to invent and realize a new method of organizing society and power, and a revolution that fails to uphold this principle is hardly a revolution in the first place.  The recognition of this fact is what lead the American Revolution to reject a monarchy, in favor of democracy (albeit one that was racist, sexist, and bourgeoisie).

The third method is one that is arguably the least discussed, and certainly the one I least comprehend–although I certainly agree that there is a “terrifying” aspect to it.  One might recall the horror of Pol Pot’s Cambodia and the actions of the Khmer Rouge–determined to remain true to his own synthesis of “agrarian Marxism,” Pol Pot emptied the urban centers of the country and drove the population into the countryside, where millions either starved to death or were executed by the State.  A social order was certainly imposed, but this is only a “victory” in the most obscene sense of the term.

Though these three paths have distinct qualities, it is simple to consolidate all of them into one idea: that a revolution fails if it does not construct  a more egalitarian and democratic social order to replace the previous order.

What might constitute a truly new social order, in today’s context?  If you are on a college campus, you have probably seen fliers  calling for a socialist revolution, in order to “create a democracy and an economy that respects the needs of its people!” or some other equally vague rhetoric.  But to many on the Radical Left, this skirts a little too closely to repeating the failures of the 20th century–namely, in the way that these calls still focus on the seizure of State power as the primary means toward a new society.  The seizure of the State is not radical enough.

To understand why, I turn now to an essay entitled “Communisation and Value-Form Theory,” published in April 2010 by the communist journal Endnotes.

If, after a revolution, the bourgeoisie is expropriated but workers remain workers, producing in separate enterprises, dependent on their relation to that workplace for their subsistence, and exchanging with other enterprises, then whether that exchange is self-organised by the workers or given central direction by a “workers’ state” means very little: the capitalist content remains, and sooner or later the distinct role or function of the capitalist will reassert itself.

This is why the simple seizure of the State does not, in itself, constitute a radical event or a rupture with the past.  The Russian Revolution, despite being one of the largest instances of working-class uprising in human history, still failed to consolidate the revolution into a new social order where the workers owned the factories and the peasants owned the land.  Instead, the State owned all, and simply replaced the capitalist managers with party bureaucrats.  But since the relationship between the workers, the workplace, and the State did not significantly change, it was arguably inevitable that the Soviet Union (and other socialist countries like China and Vietnam) would slowly but surely re-configure itself back into being dominated by explicitly capitalist relations.

A fuzzy picture of what constitutes a truly radical and positive revolution now begins to appear.  Such a movement needs to emphasize the transformation of social relations on their most basic level.  The common people  need to take control of the means of production themselves, and not rely on the promises of a socialist state or a communist party.  And at the same time, the re-conception of a State, with its monopoly on violence and centralized authority, should also be avoided, in that the very structure of the modern State itself is encoded with an oppressive, hierarchical logic.

Badiou couches part of this concept in his notion of the “space subtracted from the State,” and this theory has been empirically (but briefly) realized by revolutionary groups like the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), which attempted an uprising against the Mexican state in 1994.  Numerous sectors of the province of Chiapas was seized, and although the Zapatistas were eventually beat back by the Mexican military, there still remains today a certain essence of a “space subtracted from the state” throughout the province, as the organization has enough control over the area so as to render it relatively autonomous.

Another example, and one closer to home, is that of Occupy.  The core strategy of the Occupy movement was to take over a public space, and remove it from the jurisdiction of the State.  But the Occupy did not just stop there; it also tended to uphold the Endnotes vision of communisation, of the direct and immediate implementation of communist social relations without the socialist transition stage or the guidance of a State.

Those who developed the theory of communisation rejected this posing of revolution in terms of forms of organisation, and instead aimed to grasp the revolution in terms of its content. Communisation implied a rejection of the view of revolution as an event where workers take power followed by a period of transition: instead it was to be seen as a movement characterised by immediate communist measures (such as the free distribution of goods) both for their own merit, and as a way of destroying the material basis of the counter-revolution…the revolution as a communising movement would destroy — by ceasing to constitute and reproduce them — all capitalist categories: exchange, money, commodities, the existence of separate enterprises, the state and — most fundamentally — wage labour and the working class itself.

In particular, Occupy Oakland tended to uphold this principle.  Food, water, and other goods were distributed on a free basis, with no central authority or structure to direct the method or quantity of distribution.  And yet, for weeks on end, this process was stable; free donation was met with free consumption.

Of course, there were clear limits to this effort.  Notwithstanding the inevitable destruction of Occupy’s spaces by the State, a donation-based economy is still highly precarious, and is a far-cry from the central communist quality of worker-owned production.  It is not enough for the distribution to be communist, if the production itself remains capitalist.  In addition, there are serious questions of scalability, as well as defense and expansion.

But nonetheless, I am persuaded that methods for revolutionizing society without becoming  reconfigured into a violent State apparatus exists, and indeed is occurring right now, across the many splintered, yet passionate struggles that have been making waves for the last few years.       

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