Revolution Online, February 21, 2010
An Historic Contradiction: Fundamentally Changing The World Without "Turning Out the Lights"
"And the world stays fundamentally unchanged. Capitalism-imperialism continues humming in the 'background,' crushing lives and destroying spirits in its meat-grinder of exploitation. And the horrors continue unabated."
This is our standing and powerful refutation of every other trend in the world. On the other hand, the way that a lot of people look at what we're about—and not entirely without justification—is: "Here come the communists, turn out the lights, the party's over."
The heart of the problem, it seems to me, is the need to carry out revolution without "turning out the lights". And this contradiction is not in any way easy to resolve. It is quite easy to argue for the full flowering of intellectual curiosity, debate and dissent "so long as" it does not interfere with the actual process of revolutionary transformation and, in particular, in the building and further socialism under the proletarian dictatorship. I believe this was a principal criterion of Mao's "Hundred Flowers" campaign.
The difficulty with "keeping the lights on" is not only that counter‑revolutionaries will surely seize upon any opening provided. It is also that the class position and outlook of many of the artists and intellectuals can in many instances lead them to want to act upon the petit bourgeois democratic illusion that society does not require a dictatorship of one or another of the contending classes. For many of them at least, the revolutionary transformation itself can appear as "turning out the lights". The problem is that in the past this view was "not entirely without justification". While the centrality of struggle between different viewpoints was sometimes stressed, most especially by Mao, failing to see the united front aspect and the "solid core with lots of elasticity" would lead to a one‑sided, heavy-handed and harmful conception of the remolding of intellectuals. Certainly there was little understanding that the clash of worldviews can be part of the unresolved contradictions pushing the whole revolutionary process forward.
This brings to mind the scene from Reds when John Reed and Emma Goldman dispute the assessment of the Bolshevik revolution. If I remember correctly, in response to Goldman's categorical denunciation of the revolution Reed argues something to the effect that they both had had a vision of society but he had come to understand that it could not be accomplished without, among other things, "firing squads".
Reed's response captures how most communists had previously considered this contradiction. Put simply, the requirements of seizing and holding power "trump" all other considerations. And while Reed is no doubt correct in his basic refutation of Goldman, nevertheless the same logic of "the end justifies the means" can and was later carried to an extreme and used not only to justify those horrors that marred our project but to denature the "end" itself and later serve as a justification for revisionism and even social imperialism.
It is necessary to deeply grasp how the New Synthesis provides a basic answer to how revolutionary transformation can take place without "turning out the lights" and the powerful attraction that this can have to those actually seeking such transformation. But this basic answer is by no means a simple solution because the problem itself is so deeply rooted in the contradictory nature of the proletarian revolutionary process itself. I have seen some who argue that the New Synthesis and its critique of the experience of the 20th century is excellent "except" for what is perceived as a failure to appreciate the necessity that was facing the socialist states. The point is the necessity was real indeed just as the necessity that will face future revolutions will also be formidable. Any proposed "solution" that is based on denying or wishing away the necessity cannot but collapse when confronted with the realities of the class struggle and the international situation. Most will concede that internationalism is laudable but will argue that it must give way to the imperatives of the defense of a socialist state, or for example that ultimately women need to be liberated but in the meantime it is fine if they are forced to be breeders if the regeneration of the population requires it.
In a recent discussion of the Manifesto from the RCP, an interesting debate took place with some who were arguing most strenuously for the dogmatic and "reified" version of the "mirror opposites." They conceded that the proletariat must free all humanity but insisted that this was only a byproduct of its own struggle for emancipation against those who argued that the emancipation of humanity is the proletarian mission. Although I would like to go back and look at the various references from Marx and Engels in relation to this, I suspect that a certain ambiguity is present all along in how they understood the proletariat as the vehicle for revolutionary transformation. (And how do we see Lenin's discussion of the proletariat as a class "for itself" in this regard?) Not only is the argument of "byproduct" false, it has within it the seeds of betrayal and tragedy when one considers that the interests of the proletariat "for itself" (if this is understood in any sense other than the struggle for human emancipation) will surely contradict the interests of given sections of the population and no doubt at times its own long term interests as well. The "byproduct" understanding is based on the false assumption that there cannot be a contradiction between the needs of a section of the population who happen to be the proletarians and the needs of the proletarian revolution itself. But we have seen that not only are such conflicts possible, they are inevitable, and all the more so when we consider the international dimension and the contradictory role of proletarians benefiting from the construction of a given socialist state and the role of the proletariat as the agent for revolutionary transformation on a world scale.
When reading the excerpts from some of the diaries of Soviet citizens in the 1930s (Revolution on My Mind, Writing a Diary Under Stalin) it is clear that some people had concluded, consciously, that it was necessary to "turn the lights out" if the world was going to be transformed. And this included at least some intellectuals as well who seemed persuaded that whatever reluctance or reticence they felt about some of the direction and policies of the Soviet party and state could be and should be attributed to their own "bourgeois" worldview which they felt compelled to fight against and restrain. As often as not, even policies that we would, in the light of the New Synthesis, consider heavy handed or flat‑out wrong were often accepted even by many who suffered directly from them as the necessary price of revolutionary transformation. It is interesting that a subjectivist tendency toward introspection can go hand‑in‑hand with a rigid and mechanical approach to social transformation.
The contradictory unity between "unity of will and discipline" and "personal ease of mind and liveliness" would seem to have a lot to do with keeping the lights on and the party going. But while this was recognized in words at least by the Chinese comrades it seems that in that experience in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) also it was not so easy to find the correct relationship between the individual initiative and creativity and the overall collective class struggle.
What constitutes "a party" and what "lights on" means will, of course, depend to a great degree on class outlook. The bourgeoisie can be expected to denounce any dictatorship exercised over it. The problem is there is no great wall between the bourgeoisie and the petit bourgeois intellectuals and the later will tend to gravitate toward a "classless" definition of "lights on" which can easily be incorporated by the capitalist class (old or new). It seems to me that the GPCR really was, despite serious and real shortcomings, an example of a genuine party. Nor was this only true for the broadest masses who really did, many for the first time, become real participants in "the party". The GPCR also attracted and unleashed the energies and hopes of important sections of the intelligentsia as well, at least its youthful section as seen especially in the Red Guard movement. But wrong tendencies toward "reification" and one‑sided policies seem to have made it difficult to sustain and develop this united front or class alliance.
It is worthwhile to consider how it might have been possible to effect a different class alliance in China. The counter‑revolution took place to no small degree under the signboard of the "Party of Order". While part of this was promising an end to the "horrors" of the GPCR, the central point of appeal seems to have been the promise of more consumer goods while relying on the fatigue and declining enthusiasm of the middle sections of society in the face of turmoil and uncertainty. Perhaps a less reified understanding on the part of the revolutionary headquarters could also have led to a different and potentially more favorable polarization in the socialist society. Would it have been possible for at least some of the sentiments and energies that later exploded in the Tiananmen Square events in 1989 to have been expressed not as an appeal for bourgeois democratic liberties (seen in contradiction to both the revisionist rulers and Maoism) but rather as strivings against stultification and revisionism, energies that could have been coalesced with revolutionary communism? Of course, it is impossible to answer that question with any degree of certainty. But it does seem that the New Synthesis provides a framework not only to critique the shortcomings of past experience but also to glimpse how a different approach could bring about a more favorable realignment of forces.
In the post‑coup Maoist movement the repeated tendency in summing up the loss in China was toward some version of the Hoxhaite critique of Mao's "liberalism." There was no real belief that the initial rupture between Mao and previous (essentially Soviet) experience could be built upon and deepened further. Instead, there was a constant effort to "rein in" Mao's breakthrough and to "recast" it in light of the old understanding (aided by the contradictory nature of Mao's own thinking as it diverged with but still incorporated significant aspects of what was wrong in that previous understanding).
As we have seen particularly sharply in the last few years, it is the openly bourgeois or social‑democratic "answer" to the conundrum of how to maintain political power while keeping the lights on that is more likely to be the final resting place for ex revolutionaries. But it is important to keep in mind the crucial observation in the Manifesto concerning the "mirror opposites" and the basis for one error to flip into another (or, as we can also observe, the construction of ever more creative "composite errors"). Class truth, reification of the proletariat, and "identity politics" have a great deal in common.
In short, it seems that many in the communist movement believe you have to chose between "turning out the lights" and the abandoning of any attempt at real revolutionary transformation of social conditions—all that remains is to debate which alternative is worse or which spontaneity is more attractive. On the other hand, the New Synthesis argues that there is no other way to achieve communism except through the approach of solid core with lots of elasticity. The dichotomy of the "mirror opposites" is thus refused and a real way forward indicated through the recognition and working out of contradictions. The recognition of necessity that the New Synthesis represents enables the transformation of that necessity, through struggle. Again, it does not make revolutionary transformation easy and can offer no guarantees. Indeed, it has shattered previously accepted "guarantees" such as the "inevitability of communism" or the belief that somehow the understanding of a reified proletariat would necessarily lead in a positive direction ("the main stream of the mass movement is always correct"). But the very recognition of the contradictory, difficult and uncertain nature of the socialist transformation can speak to those who really would want to see the world "rise on new foundations" but who want to know if it is possible to do so without "turning out the lights". It won't be enough simply to work to dispel the lies and ignorance concerning the first wave of proletarian revolution. To the extent that we can identify the real contradictions of the whole process and in that sense at least chart out a basic approach of how we envision transforming conditions and transforming people our project will be more compelling and attractive.
Throughout most of the past of the international communist movement (ICM) the contradiction between the "forcible overthrow of the existing conditions" and "keeping the lights on" was not perceived as a unity of opposites. This was related to the flattening out of contradictions, a mistaken and reified view of the historic mission of the proletariat and a misunderstanding of communism itself (Mao's unfortunate reference to the "Kingdom of Great Harmony" captured something even as he was developing a different understanding). If communism is correctly seen as an unleashing of the full human potential unfettered from "the four Alls" why would it even be possible to conceive of achieving it through a stultifying and narrow "second model" revolution?
The New Synthesis has been accused of humanism precisely by those who insist on clinging to the past of the communist movement. I think it is fair to say that many cringe at hearing the very words "the emancipation of humanity". Humanism ignores the centrality of the cleavage of society into classes, or in any event rejects the forcible overthrow of the ruling classes, the resulting proletarian dictatorship and the whole historical process of eliminating the Four Alls. We can delineate ourselves from humanism without giving up humanity. The insistence on the unity between ends and means and the emphasis given to communist morality is a big part of the answer to why and how struggling to "keep the lights on" will be a central feature of the coming stage of proletarian revolution and in the new socialist societies that emerge from it.
If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.