In response to a listener request, we consider the situation in the United States today in light of historical thinking on the question of revolutionary situations.
Welcome to episode 25 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
This week, we’re doing something a little different. Because of the massive wave of protest and rebellion which has swept across the United States, we got a listener request to use some historical insight to contribute to the conversation going on about whether this is a revolutionary situation or not that we are living in, or could I contribute something to help people who are thinking about this question.
First off, what do we mean when we say revolution? In general, it’s a term that gets used fairly loosely, although some historians try to use it only for cases where there is a major change in society, such as when capitalism is replaced by socialism. For example, a while back there was a big debate among scholars of the Mexican Revolution about whether it should be considered a revolution or not. The proponents of just labeling it a great rebellion made the point that, at the end of the day, one capitalist regime which depended on foreign capital was just replaced by another capitalist regime which depended on foreign capital, albeit a much more nationalistic one, and so therefore there wasn’t a deep enough structural change for it to be called a revolution. However, given the sheer scale of the Mexican Revolution (it lasted about ten years and involved just a tremendous amount of violence and chaos, with several different armies taking to the field against each other in pursuit of recognizably different political programs), most of us have remained attached to calling it a revolution. So, ‘revolution’ is a bit of an imprecise term, but, in general usage, it means any sort of uprising to overthrow a regime with mass participation.
In this podcast, we have been looking at the history of global Maoism. Now, revolutions like the Russian and Chinese Revolutions and the sorts of revolutions that Maoists have tried to make or have advocated are called social revolutions, because they involve a more thorough overhaul of the social, political and economic system. In the United States, a lot of people feel like the American Revolution which began in 1776 was a big deal, but really, it was just a political revolution, not a social revolution. But some historians like to call the United States Civil War the second American Revolution, because there was an element of social revolution to it in that the slavery system was overthrown, even though as we can see today, it was a very incomplete social revolution and we’re living with the incompleteness of that process in the events we are living through today.
So, now that we have clarified what we mean by revolution, what do we mean by ‘revolutionary situation?’ Well, a revolution can’t take place at just any time. It relies on a certain political conjuncture taking place within which a ruling regime has become unstable due to a loss of legitimacy, with major political divisions among the ruling elite and within the middle class about how society should go forward, and mass disenchantment and protest against the regime. This instability and loss of legitimacy opens up a moment when the regime can be overthrown. Historically, revolutionary situations are each unique. One revolution never looks exactly the same as any other revolution, and the factors that go into creating a revolutionary situation can always be seen in retrospect to have been highly contingent on a series of events that would have been very hard to foresee or predict in advance.
I think most people who study the comparative history of revolutions would agree, the person who did the best job at analyzing and identifying a developing revolutionary situation as it happened, and with an eye to taking advantage of the situation in order to actually carry off a revolution, was Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the socialist revolution in Russia in 1917. I don’t think any other revolutionary leader historically has really demonstrated his ability to sense the possibilities, and limits, in a developing and volatile political situation, and one of the best places to start in getting a living sense of how to think about an ongoing revolutionary crisis is to read through Lenin’s writings from the period of the Russian Revolution.
Lenin had spent a lot of time thinking about and analyzing Russia’s failed revolution of 1905, and other European revolutionary experiences, and had really honed in on the problem of how revolutionaries should understand how they should act in the midst of very fluid situations of mass upheaval. Now, the topic of Lenin’s day-to-day analysis of and leadership of the Russian Revolution is way beyond what we can talk about in a single episode. But, what we can do is take a bit of a detailed look at how Lenin thought about revolutionary crises going into 1917.
In 1915, when Lenin was polemicizing against the parties of the Second International which had abandoned their commitment to oppose World War I, which we talked about back in Episode 15 on the Communist International, Lenin laid out three major ‘symptoms’ of a revolutionary situation:
“To the Marxist it is indisputable that a revolution is impossible without a revolutionary situation; furthermore, it is not every revolutionary situation that leads to revolution. What, generally speaking, are the symptoms of a revolutionary situation? We shall certainly not be mistaken if we indicate the following three major symptoms:
“(1) when it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change; when there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the ‘upper classes,’ a crisis in the policy of the ruling class, leading to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth. For a revolution to take place, it is usually insufficient for ‘the lower classes not to want’ to live in the old way; it is also necessary that ‘the upper classes should be unable’ to live in the old way;
“(2) when the suffering and want of the oppressed classes have grown more acute than usual;
“(3) when, as a consequence of the above causes, there is a considerable increase in the activity of the masses, who uncomplainingly allow themselves to be robbed in ‘peace time,’ but, in turbulent times, are drawn both by all the circumstances of the crisis and by the ‘upper classes’ themselves into independent historical action.”
So, taking these three criteria of Lenin’s, could we say that the United States has been experiencing a revolutionary situation?
Let’s start with #2: “when the suffering and want of the oppressed classes have grown more acute than usual.”
I think this one is a pretty easy yes. Clearly, with people being either forced to stay at home for months, or to continue working despite major risks to their health, and millions of people thrown out of work, the suffering and want of the oppressed classes has certainly grown more acute. The actual trigger for the uprising, the police murder of George Floyd, was itself particularly brutal and cold-blooded as well, and echoed the open racism coming from Trump. So this combination of the pandemic, the economic crisis, having to constantly deal with Trump’s racism and open corruption, and just the ongoing murder of people, particularly Black people, by police, I think does match Lenin’s second criteria.
Now let’s look at Lenin’s first criteria: a crisis in the ruling class so severe that ‘the upper classes should be unable’ to live in the old way.
I think this is a much harder question to answer in our current situation. What was Lenin referring to historically when he made this one of his criteria? He doesn’t specify it in this particular work, “The Collapse of the Second International,” but we know that there were three big revolutionary reference points for Lenin before 1917, which he constantly went back to when thinking about a revolution in Russia. They were the Russian Revolution of 1905, the Paris Commune of 1871, and the French Revolution which began in 1789.
So, at some risk of badly oversimplifying in the interests of brevity, let’s consider what did the crisis or split in the ruling classes look like concretely in these three cases? In both the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution of 1905, the crisis within ruling circles revolved around the role of the monarchy, with monarchists resisting some liberalizing reforms which other elements of the elite felt were absolutely necessary. The depth of the split in the ruling class in these cases allowed space for more popular forces to enter into political life in ways that hadn’t been previously tolerated, and indeed to some degree the opposing sides in the contest between ruling elites called parts of the masses into action (which is part of Lenin’s third criterion).
In the case of the Paris Commune in 1871, France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War led to the collapse of the regime of Louis Napoleon, who had ruled France since 1848. He was an openly corrupt and often bumbling dictator, and so when he was finally overthrown by the invading Prussian army there was no really legitimate ruling regime in France, and the masses of people in Paris had a rare opportunity to try to establish their own government run by the working people, instead of just accepting whatever new regime the old French elite ended up cobbling together in the wake of the war.
Returning to the United States of today, clearly whatever crisis is going on within the ruling elite, it’s of a pretty different variety than the three historical examples I just listed. But I guess the real question is, how does the magnitude of the crisis measure up? Clearly, there is some sort of a split in the ruling elite in this country. We had an impeachment trial, Trump came to power calling for Clinton to be locked up (although he didn’t follow up on his threat), and Trump has at times incited his supporters to violence against his opponents. There has been a significant split in the ruling class of the United States for some time, but there has also been a lot of unity. I think that there is a major, ongoing crisis involving the collapse of the neoliberal model and the growing onset of the climate crisis, and that the US ruling class does not have a unified plan on how to deal with it, but it also doesn’t really have strongly opposed camps on these questions either. There is also some conflict among the US elite about whether to wind down the ongoing so-called War on Terror, and how that can be done in a way which safeguards their interests. That said, I don’t think there is quite the depth of crisis among the ruling elite in the US that matches the historical examples above.
Some people might ask. Why did Lenin care about the level of crisis within the ruling class? Couldn’t the masses just rise up and, in their millions, defeat a mostly unified ruling elite? Lenin clearly thought that they couldn’t. That without a political crisis in which elements of the ruling elite were pitted against each other, the ruling class would be able to marshal both the repressive forces and the tremendous ideological power of the long-standing legitimacy of their rule in the minds of most people, and there could not be a revolution. And it’s clear that as 1917 progressed and Lenin’s thinking on this question became much richer based on the experience he was gaining, he became more and more convinced that this was the case. If you want to explore this question further, there are two short pieces from 1917 where Lenin gets into this question in some depth: Letters from Afar, and “Marxism and Insurrection.”
Just to take a short, illustrative passage from Letters from Afar, in which Lenin discusses the success of the first stage of the Russian Revolution, in February 1917, when the Tsar had been overthrown before the October 1917 socialist revolution happened:
“That the revolution succeeded so quickly and—seemingly, at the first superficial glance—so radically, is only due to the fact that, as a result of an extremely unique historical situation, absolutely dissimilar currents, absolutely heterogeneous class interests, absolutely contrary political and social strivings have merged, and in a strikingly “harmonious” manner.”
Here, Lenin is talking about how the different actions and aspirations of different groups, drawn from all the classes of society, striving for different and even opposed goals, all went into creating the situation that allowed the revolution to happen.
OK, let’s move on to Lenin’s third criterion: that the masses, who are complacent in normal times, are drawn into independent political action.
I think this is a complicated one. On the one hand, clearly the outbreak of rebellion and protest that we are seeing has major elements of this. Certainly, large numbers of outraged people flooding into the streets and trashing major shopping districts in large cities is a form of independent political action, and the more peaceful protests as well have represented people being drawn into action. And, leading up to the protests, I think there are other ways that people in the United States have recently been mobilized, or brought into political life.
The way in which people who normally do not think about politics or about how they live their life have had to adapt to the pandemic has been, in a certain sense, a form of mobilization, in that people have been called upon to change how they live.
Part of the ruling elite has also been calling on the masses to be politically active. While the mainstream Democratic Party has played its standard social role of keeping the masses demobilized, the Bernie Sanders campaign and the emergence since 2016 of a more mobilized social democratic constituency within and at the margins of the Democratic Party has been a major feature of political life. I think there are good discussions to be had about to the essential nature of this phenomenon. Is it the masses being called into political activity by part of the ruling elite? Is it an expression of the masses in their political activity striving to come under the wing of the bourgeoisie, a phenomenon which Lenin discusses elsewhere, particularly in What Is to Be Done?? Is it a mass political upsurge which is only making tactical use of the Democratic Party and which actually represents more working class interests? How these three elements mix together in the social-democratic movement around Bernie, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the DSA is an important question. But undeniably, these people have been drawing many people into organized political life who hadn’t previously been active.
And on the other end of the spectrum, Trump is also mobilizing masses of people in a fascistic manner. So people being drawn into political life from the regular, complacent masses of people, even if it’s on the right, definitely contributes to the turbulent mix that Lenin saw as creating a revolutionary situation. Partly this is because it creates a more politicized atmosphere among the masses themselves. Partly this is because it contributes to the general upheaval, the breaking down of the inertia of complacency and inactivity (not to mention hopelessness) which so often characterizes the lives of regular working people. Even masses drawn into political life for fascistic ends, once in motion, cannot necessarily be controlled by the elite powers which set them in motion. There are some interesting examples internationally where the more populistic semi-fascists, such as Perón in Argentina, have unleashed popular forces which escaped their control and which ultimately ended up on the side of causes much more associated with the left than with the right. In the case of the United States, one point that the recently deceased Noel Ignatiev used to make was that, statistically, it was quite likely that many members of the Michigan militia movement probably voted for Jesse Jackson in the 1988 Democratic Party primary.
So just as with Lenin’s first criterion, the question is, is all this enough to qualify for Lenin’s third criterion? Are enough masses, to use Lenin’s words, “drawn both by all the circumstances of the crisis and by the ‘upper classes’ themselves into independent historical action.”?
Maybe the answer is “we’ll see?”
I know that, in the midst of this, especially in the first few days, when things just kept on going rather than stopping or being stomped down, it was easy to get a feeling of exhilaration and to feel like a wall that was normally always there had been broken down. I think after a week of protests, there were some people who started thinking, “wow, this might be it.” I heard some people talking in a way that reminded me of how I felt about the end of the second day of the Los Angeles Rebellion back in 1992, after the Rodney King verdict, when it looked to me like, hey, maybe the people can defeat the National Guard, and protests and uprisings had spread to over a hundred cities across the country, even without social media or the interconnectedness that we have today.
So, using Lenin’s criteria from just before he gained the experience that he did over the course of 1917, I am not quite certain that this isn’t a revolutionary situation in the making, but I don’t think we’re quite there yet.
Of course, the question of what one does if one recognizes that one is actually living in a revolutionary situation is a whole other question. Anyone looking for Lenin’s guidance on that question, I would point to “Marxism and Insurrection,” written in September 1917 and which I referred to earlier. In that work, Lenin goes particularly into how an organized party which is prepared to take advantage of a revolutionary situation would act under those conditions. After all, the quote we took from Lenin began with the line “To the Marxist it is indisputable that a revolution is impossible without a revolutionary situation; furthermore, it is not every revolutionary situation that leads to revolution.” So, even if we are in a revolutionary situation, that doesn’t mean that anyone is actually going to do anything about it. Historically, there have probably been a lot of revolutionary situations in a lot of countries. The much more rare phenomenon is when there is some organized force among the masses which can take advantage of that situation and actually make a revolution. I just don’t see anything remotely resembling that sort of organized force in the United States today.
Alright, as I mentioned at the beginning of this episode, this podcast was in response to a listener request. I really like hearing from you guys, so please do get in touch or keep in touch if you have anything to say, or any questions or comments. And, remember, if you like the podcast, reviews and ratings are appreciated and will help others discover this show.
See you next time.