The concept of revolution poses a major challenge for Marxists today. The practice of revolution raises even larger ones.
These are hard realities for Marxists to acknowledge. With capitalism hurtling toward ecological catastrophe, waves of pandemics, and new forms of authoritarian rule, the compelling necessity of socialist revolution appears obvious. Yet, the pathways to such a revolution remain elusive.
After all, across the last four decades of neoliberalism we have seen a sharp decline in mass struggles that embody new forms of working class and popular power. And this accounts for a prolonged collapse of historical imagination and revolutionary perspectives on the international left.
This should perhaps be expected. Throughout the history of the socialist movement, the idea of revolution has had identifiable historical referents. Actual experience of insurgent mass struggle decisively informed and shaped the strategies of revolutionaries. Marx and Engels drew their model of popular uprisings from the European street battles and barricades of 1848. Then the events of the Paris Commune of 1871 impelled them to rethink the forms of the working class struggle for power.1Crucially, as they put it one year after the Parisian uprising, the Commune demonstrated that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.” See Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Preface to a new German edition of The Communist Manifesto as cited in Engels’s Preface to the 1888 English edition of that text. Available in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “The Manifesto of the Communist Party” in Karl Marx, The Revolutions of 1848 (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1973), 66.
The centrality of mass strikes to Rosa Luxemburg’s political outlook derived directly from her participation in the strike waves during the Russian revolution of 1905. And it was the creation of soviets (councils) by Russian workers that led Lenin and the Bolsheviks to radically reimagine the struggle for socialism in the Czarist empire.
For Antonio Gramsci, the lessons of Russia 1917 were weaved together with those of the failed revolution of 1920 in Italy as part of sustained reflections on Marxist strategy and politics. Similarly, after World War 2, it was the anti-colonial revolutions—their successes and their failures—that informed the perspectives of C.L.R. James, Frantz Fanon, and Walter Rodney on world revolution in the second half of the twentieth century.
The socialist left suffers today due to the overwhelming absence of similar experiences. To be sure, mass upheavals have not disappeared. In fact, I have written of a recent return of the mass strike as a form of struggle.2David McNally, “The Return of the Mass Strike: Teachers, Students, Feminists, and the New Wave of Popular Upheavals,” Spectre 1, no. 1 (Spring 2020): 12-37. Nevertheless, a problem remains. It is one identified by the editors of the superb new volume, Revolutionary Rehearsals in the Neoliberal Era, forthcoming from Haymarket Books. (As I note below, Spectre journal will be organizing a unique session on this book with our editors and sustainers).
Comparing the upheavals of recent years to those of the period running from 1968 to 1976—the epoch of general strikes, student rebellions, and factory occupations in France and Pakistan (1968), of the formation of factory committees during the Popular Unity period in Chile (1970-73), and the embryonic council movement in Portugal during the overthrow of fascism (1974-75)—the editors of Revolutionary Rehearsals raise a critical question.
They acknowledge that popular protest can be seen all around us. Yet, where today, they ask, do we find “the militant workers and workplace occupations, the land seizures and the inter-factory strike committees?”3Colin Barker, Neil Davidson, and Gareth Dale, “Introduction” to Revolutionary Rehearsals in the Neoliberal Age (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2021), 5. Where, in short, do we find the embryonic forms of working class and popular power that might create an alternative to the rule of capitalist states?
The problem is not simply that working class movements have undergone a brutal series of defeats under neoliberalism. It is also that the mass insurgencies of recent decades—from South Africa to Poland, from South Korea to Indonesia—have all too often had their democratic aspirations integrated into liberal market regimes. Rarely have these upheavals resulted in the strengthening of a mass socialist and working class left, with the partial exception of some elements of the “pink tide” moment in Latin America.
The decline of the idea of socialist revolution thus goes hand in hand with a relative collapse of insurgent, leftward-moving popular insurgencies.
The New Reformism
This is the context for the rise of a new and bolder social democratic reformism, particularly in the U.S. Stimulated in part by the episodic successes of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns of 2016 and 2020, a layer of intellectuals and activists in and around the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has embraced the parliamentarist legacy of German social democratic theorist Karl Kautsky.4To be clear, there are many different shades of opinion in DSA, not all of them embracing the legacy of Kautsky. The key popular text of the new Kautskyism is Eric Blanc, “Why Kautsky Was Right (and Why You Should Care),” Jacobin, April 2, 2019. I cannot discuss here the degree to which the new Kautskyism relies on tendentious criticism of the legacy of Rosa Luxemburg. Today, the new Kautskyism reinforces a fixation on the electoral arena that threatens to disable sections of the socialist left. The embrace of electoralism underpins left practices that de-emphasize mobilization in defense of Black lives, evade or oppose calls to defund the police, and fail to lift a finger on behalf of union organizing drives at Amazon.5See David McNally and Charles Post, “Beyond Electoralism: Mass Action and the Remaking of the Working Class,” Spectre 2, no. 1 (Spring 2021). As we point out there, it has been the overwhelming attitude of revolutionary socialists to favor participation in parliamentary politics, but not to support elevating such work above building mass strikes and struggles in working class communities. There is a political logic to this since, as Kautsky himself half conceded, his was a “passive radicalism” mistrustful of socialist efforts to build working class insurgency.6The term “passive radicalism” was used in 1912 by the left radical Anton Pannekoek to characterize Kautsky’s politics. Kautsky accepted the term with respect to specific forms of mass strikes and street demonstrations in an article entitled “The New Tactic.” See Kautsky, “Die neue Taktik,” Die Neue Zeit 30, no. 2 (1912): 695. Available at https://www.marxists.org/deutsch/archiv/kautsky/1912/xx/taktik.htm. For an English translation of this passage see Anton Pannekoek, “Marxist Theory and Revolutionary Tactics” in Pannekoek and Gorter’s Marxism, ed. D.A. Smart (London: Pluto Press, 1978): 64. For the record, I consider Pannekoek’s pre-World War 1 critique of Kautsky to be highly insightful, notwithstanding his later embrace of (“abstentionist”) positions on parliamentary activity and work in mass trade unions from which I dissent.
All of this makes critical engagement with the new reformism most valuable.7For a few helpful critical pieces see Charlie Post, “The ‘Best’ of Kautsky isn’t Good Enough,” Jacobin, March 9, 2019; Mike Taber, “Kautsky, Lenin and the Transition to Socialism: A Reply to Eric Blanc,” available at https://johnriddell.com/2019/04/06/kautsky-lenin-and-the-transition-to-socialism-by-mike-taber/; Gil Schaeffer, “The Curious Case of the ‘Democratic Road to Socialism’ That Wasn’t There,” New Politics, April 24, 2020. Yet, such engagement encounters real limits. Reborn Kautskyism endures despite exposure of its theoretical confusions and historical evasions. And this is because the left alternative appears to lack credibility. It is here that Marxists need considerable honesty and self-reflection. Otherwise, the defense of revolution risks becoming defensive.
This is why we need to develop a historical materialist account of our predicament. We need to rigorously analyze the social-historical processes that have marginalized revolutionary movements the better to critically re-examine the very meaning of socialist revolution today. But before that, we need to clarify key terms of discussion.
The Politics of Dual Power
What then of socialist revolution?
In order to address this question, we first need some elementary clarity over the terms of debate. Crucially, this requires addressing the suggestion that revolutionary politics are a species of insurrectionism.8A claim made by Blanc, “Why Kautsky Was Right.”
This suggestion is not terribly new. It was promoted by Ralph Miliband in the 1970s. Rather than grouping socialists into reformist and revolutionary camps, Miliband proposed to identify them as belonging either to the “constitutionalist” camp or the “insurrectionary” one. Although acknowledging that this categorization was not without “problems,” Miliband proceeded to claim that those in the latter camp practiced something called “insurrectionary politics.”9Ralph Miliband, Marxism and Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 155, 166, 169. But it must be said that his description of these politics betrayed precious little understanding of the outlook of most revolutionary socialists.
While taking issue with the idea of insurrection, Miliband largely ignored the three crucial and interrelated claims that are fundamental to the revolutionary approach. First is the insistence that the alienating and bureaucratic forms of the capitalist state are not amenable to deployment for socialist ends.10See David McNally, “Race, Class, the Left, and the US Elections, Studies in Political Economy, forthcoming 2021. Related to this is the idea, secondly, that socialist transformation of society will require the cultivation of new institutions of grassroots democratic popular power. Rooted in workplaces and communities, these councils or assemblies should embody a radically more direct and participatory form of democratic decision-making from below—one which makes possible the radical democratization and disalienation of political power. Finally, socialists in the revolutionary tradition argue that, at least since the Paris Commune of 1871, insurgent workers’ movements have shown a historical propensity to create just such institutions of popular power.
As a result, the revolutionary perspective is most accurately described as a dual power strategy because it promotes new centers of popular power outside of (an in opposition to) the apparatuses of the old state. In this scenario, the building of workers’ power creates new institutions of democratic self-rule that contest the powers of the old. Hence: dual power, a strategy of building new centers of popular power alongside of—and dedicated to supplanting—the old ones.
True, revolutionaries expect that direct conflicts are likely to arise between these competing centers of power—especially between the insurgent mass movement and the institutions of repression such as the army, the police, and the prison complex. “Insurrection” occurs if and when the revolutionary movement is required to resolve these conflicts in its favor by force. In October 1917, for instance, the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Saint Petersburg Soviet of Workers Deputies undertook an uprising in order to block government efforts to disarm and disband the soviet.11See the detailed discussion in China Mieville, October: The Story of the Russian Revolution (London: Verso Books, 2017), 270-90. See also Alexander Rabinovitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd (New York: W.W. Norton, 1976), Ch. 13-15. But insurrection of this sort—the use of force to block the advance of counter-revolution—is a conjunctural and tactical question, having to do with concrete struggles and balance of forces. It follows from the strategic perspective of building institutions of popular power that encroach upon the authority of the old state.
Such an approach certainly has nothing to do with a fetish of violence. This was made clear a century ago by the Hungarian Marxist, Georg Lukács. Acknowledging the role of revolutionary violence in history, Lukács argued that “violence is no autonomous principle and never can be.” For revolutionaries, he insisted, “violence is nothing but the will of the proletariat which has become conscious and is bent on abolishing the enslaving hold of reified relations over man and the hold of economics over society.” As if to demarcate this position from any attachment to the idea of revolution as a singular magical act, Lukács adds, “This abolition, this leap is a process.”12Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (London: Merlin Press, 1971), 251-52. In short, for revolutionary socialists, the concerted use of force is about “the will of the proletariat,” and it involves a process through which members of that class curb the violence of capital (“the enslaving hold of reified relations”) over their lives. Institutionally, this entails building, expanding, and strengthening new centers of democratic popular power from below.
Miliband, Poulantzas, and the Problem of Dual Power
Arguably, the most important challenges to dual power strategies came from two theorists who were well aware of the failures of reformism, Ralph Miliband and Nicos Poulantzas. Each sought to articulate a “democratic” or non-revolutionary road to socialism. Yet, an honest accounting compelled each writer to take on board much more of the dual power perspective than is often recognized.
At a critical moment in Marxism and Politics, for instance, Miliband acknowledged that an electorally victorious left government would come under enormous political and economic pressure to dilute its program and to capitulate to the capitalist rules of the game. To avoid this outcome, its only option would be to rely on mass mobilization through a “network of organs of popular participation.” And this, he conceded, involved “an adaptation of the concept of ‘dual power’”—the very concept at the heart of so-called “insurrectionary politics.”13However, Miliband imagined organs of popular power, like workplace and neighborhood councils, acting in a “supportive” relation to a left-leaning parliamentary regime, not encroaching upon its powers. See Marxism and Politics, 188. Moreover, as I can attest from personal experience, when engaged in public debate, Miliband made very significant concessions to the revolutionary argument, especially when discussing the tragic 1973 defeat of the left in Chile.14I say this based on my own exchange with Miliband at an event, chaired by Ellen Meiksins Wood, at Glendon College, Toronto in early 1979. I will discuss this exchange at the special event for Spectre editors and sustainers on “Revolutionary Rehearsals” on June 30, 2021.
Similar “adaptations” to the dual power perspective can be observed in the writings of Poulantzas, who also sought a middle path between reform and revolution. While advocating a strategy of “democratic socialism,” Poulantzas conceded that “reformism is an ever-latent danger” and that the direction he sought would require “real breaks” with the existing forms of the state. Parliamentary institutions, however, would be exempted from these breaks as they should have, he urged, a “real permanence.”15Nicos Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism, new edition (London: Verso Books, 2000), 258, 261.
Yet, just when he appeared to have made his peace with liberal parliamentarism, Poulantzas recoiled. In fact, he endorsed the idea of the “withering away of the state,” an idea central to the revolutionary tradition. This withering away of the state, he argued, “should be accompanied with the development of new forms of direct, rank-and-file democracy, and the flowering of self-management networks and centres.”16Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism, 261-62.
Confronted with the prospect that a left government might be forced into capitulation, both Miliband and Poulantzas, with some reservations, turned to institutions of dual power to resolve their dilemmas. And Poulantzas, more deeply aware of the alienating forms of the modern state, strongly recommended “new forms of direct, rank-and-file democracy.” But, from a revolutionary perspective he stopped halfway, reluctant to leave behind liberal parliamentary institutions.17The exact relation between institutions of parliamentary and direct democracy is a concrete question that can only be resolved in specific circumstances. It is not terribly difficult to imagine, however, that a US Congress elected prior to a mass upheaval might become a deliberate block on the advance of popular power. And so, we arrive at the real debate—not the bogus one about a phantom “insurrectionism.”
Elections, Mass Movements, and the Left
In encapsulating this debate, I shall ignore right-leaning social democrats who, as history shows, will side with the power of capital and the state when push comes to shove.18See for instance, Ian Birchall, Bailing Out the System: Reformist Socialism in Western Europe 1944-1985 (London: Bookmarks, 1986). The more important debate is that between left-parliamentary and revolutionary currents on the socialist left. And much of this has to do with the viability of a strategy that sets its sites on the creation of radically new forms of political power—rooted in institutions and practices of direct, grassroots democracy.19Contrary to a lazy claim, this has nothing to do with disavowing all forms of political representation. As the Paris Commune, the soviets of 1917, and other experiences demonstrate, council-style democracy involves elections. Recallable delegates of the people do indeed represent those who elected them. It is simply that they are subject to much more effective forms of mass pressure and accountability, including recall.
Eric Blanc has charged that working class support for such a strategy “has always remained marginal.”20Blanc, “Why Kautsky Was Right.” And, outside moments of revolutionary upheaval in society, that is certainly true. But the same could be said for a strategy of electing a left government dedicated to eroding the power of capital and buttressed by a campaign of general strikes and disruptive mass street protests. As Poulantzas candidly admitted, “History has not yet given us a successful example of the democratic road to socialism.” It has only offered “negative examples to avoid and some mistakes upon which to reflect.”21Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism, 265. Honesty requires acknowledging that radical socialist forces are overwhelmingly marginal in most of the world today—irrespective of whether they advocate a left-parliamentary approach or a dual power strategy.
The real question, therefore, is about long-term strategic perspectives and the practices they prioritize in the here-and-now. What seems beyond doubt in the United States today is that the left-parliamentary current puts a much higher priority on (and a much greater investment of resources in) electoral campaigning. Advocates of the dual power strategy, on the other hand, tend to be more deeply focused on grassroots workplace organizing, building tenants unions and strikes, mobilizing in solidarity with #BLM, supporting International Women’s Strikes, campaigning for queer and trans rights, mobilizing for Palestine solidarity, building local defund-the-police projects, and creating grassroots organizations in communities and workplaces. Of course, many people in the more electoral camp participate in these arenas, just as many in the dual power camp support specific electoral campaigns—and this provides important space for activists in each current to work together and to draw lessons together.22The latter is true of Leninists as well. As Miliband noted (Marxism and Politics, 163), “Leninism was not a revolutionary strategy hostile to parliamentary participation.” But notwithstanding these overlaps, there remain significant differences of emphasis and strategic priority that distinguish the two approaches.
Most importantly, the revolutionary perspective is deeply committed to the project of developing thousands of grassroots organizers in neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces. The emphasis here is on building practices of insurgency from below and in training activists who have experience in militant rank-and-file organizing. The revolutionary camp strongly doubts that such politics (and organizers steeped in them) can be created by focusing on phone banking and canvassing for votes. We believe that a more profound “skill set” is required if a cadre of people is to be developed with the capacity to foster and deepen mass insurgency.23See McNally and Post, “Beyond Electoralism.”
This means, of course, that we are making a wager. We are gambling that history will once again generate moments of mass popular upheaval in which such organizers can make a difference. Of that we have no guarantee. But traversing the struggles of our age, we may still detect intimations of revolution.
This returns me to Revolutionary Rehearsals in the Neoliberal Age. For the central question running through the book concerns the continued relevance of revolutionary politics in the world today. The editors and contributors are profoundly aware of the reasons for doubt on that count. They do not evade the considerable challenges we face. They refuse to retreat to ritual formulas from 1917 or genuflections to Lenin.
Recognizing that the problem of revolution is ultimately one of real historical movements, struggles, and experiences, Revolutionary Rehearsals interrogates actual mass upheavals throughout the neoliberal period to examine what remains of the Marxist idea of revolution. In a series of penetrating studies, it explores the dynamics of popular protest from the rebellions in Eastern Europe in 1989 to the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. Along the way, the authors analyze mass struggles in South Africa, Indonesia, Bolivia, Argentina, and the regional dimensions of movements across both Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. They conclude that, notwithstanding immense difficulties, all these great revolts reveal “new impulses and new possibilities” for the radical left. They thus find themselves on the same page as Susan Buck-Morss in her book, Revolution Today. Using photo images of popular revolts as much as text, Buck-Morss shows that revolutionary aspirations have by no means disappeared in the world today.24Susan Buck-Morss, Revolution Today (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2019).
And so, we come back to history as it is lived at moments of insurgence, such as the recent mass uprisings in Colombia and the May 2021 general strike and street protests in Palestine. On June 30, the editors of Spectre journal will invite our sustainers to a provocative web forum on just these questions.25Spectre will be organizing quarterly web events exclusively for our sustainers and editors. To be a part of these events, you can become a sustainer here: https://spectrejournal.com/donate/
On that day, Spectre will bring together eco-socialist Gareth Dale, one of the editors of Revolutionary Rehearsals, along with Lucí Cavallero, theorist (and activist) of feminist strikes and tenant protests in Argentina, Adam Hanieh, author of Lineages of Revolt: Issues of Contemporary Capitalism in the Middle East, and Spectre editor Mattie Armstrong-Price, a historian of labor, gender, and social protest. In conversation with one another and our audience, we will debate key questions of socialist strategy provoked by Revolutionary Rehearsals.
All of this is framed by the conviction that our world desperately cries out for revolutionary transformation, and that the revolutionary impulse remains alive in our world today, even if it has taken on new forms that require fresh, critical Marxist analysis.
And as Buck-Morss insists, it is this—the persistence of the revolutionary impulse—that means “history remains open to redemption.”26Buck-Morss, Revolution Today, 62.