This piece is offered in response to Taylor Redwood’s piece Rupture, published on May 30 2018 via Flood Media. We thank Taylor for writing the piece and hope to contribute to a lively debate on the issues they raised in their piece.
Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language. - Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte
There is only one thing that leftists like more than a revolution that managed to take power—a revolution that didn’t. Like seers attempting to read the will of the gods, we so often look over the remnants and accounts, propaganda and literature as if they are so many bones thrown in the air, hoping to discern the chances of our next great campaign succeeding.
Not that one shouldn’t study revolutions of the past. Nobody would deny the relevance of our revolutionary traditions and storied histories of struggle in building the movement. However, it is worth saying that we often turn to the remnants of the past to make arguments about the issues of now - to use the words and memories of dead generations to wield as swords and shields in the debates within our movement.
This tradition of leftist study has been reproduced in Taylor Redwood’s piece in Flood Media entitled “Rupture”. In this piece, Redwood seeks messages for our moment from the revolutionary battles of the Long ‘60s, most importantly the great insurrection of Paris in May 1968. From the streets of Paris to the inner-suburbs of Brisbane, Redwood draws upon an account of the battles of May-June 1968 to lay out a particular theory of revolution. In essence their argument is that the forms of politics typified by the insurrection is an example of a political framework that seeks to emancipate humanity through the proliferation of non-capitalist modes of being, rather than an assault on the power of the capitalist state with the hopes of making an insurrectionary event. We take issue with this perspective, and in this piece we will articulate why, by exploring our concerns with its historical accuracy, theoretical underpinnings and proposed actions.
Act One - Run Comrades, the Old World is Behind You!
Revolutions are the festivals of the oppressed and the exploited. At no other time are the masses of the people in a position to come forward so actively as creators of a new social order as at a time of revolution. At such times the people are capable of performing miracles, if judged by the narrow, philistine scale of gradual progress. - V. I. Lenin, Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution
After giving a speech in the Latin Quarter to an army of students who were preparing themselves to face down the police, leading Trotskyist writer and Belgian activist Ernest Mandel stepped into the heart of a revolution. Barricades had been erected, with paving stones torn from the pavements and roads forming the foundations of a defensive infrastructure from which the students had defended their position for nights on end. Walking over to his car, which was parked not far away, he found it set alight, no doubt immolated in the fighting between students from the Sorbonne and the ruthless Parisienne riot cops. Turning towards the students, he famously shouted, “How beautiful it is! It’s the revolution!”
That was the spirit of Paris in the height of a revolutionary moment. In the streets of the Latin Quarter, a minor demonstration against the war in Vietnam had become a full blown student uprising. Police repression and the closing of the universities soon followed, and workers joined students in a massive general strike—a moment of enormous class power and revolutionary potential was in the making.
There is no doubt that the year 1968 harbours much potential for revolutionaries, and there are few places where the revolutionary wave crested higher than in France. It is in this great event that Redwood’s piece sets us, in order to make a particular argument about the nature of revolution in general and to propose a strategy. It is therefore important that we explore the historical accuracy of Redwood’s account. This historical account proposes the following: that the revolutionary movement represented a revolution against “experts” (including a rejection of vanguard parties), that the revolutionaries of the streets of May ‘68 were not interested in “taking power”, and that the movement “did not do revolution as they were supposed to do revolution”, therefore bucking the dominant ideas about how revolutionary struggles are meant to happen.
Let us begin with a general problem in this account of the rising of ‘68. By ascribing a singular political perspective to the revolutionary struggle of millions—that of an anti-hierarchical politics—there is an inadvertent flattening of the real dynamics of the movement. Redwood is absolutely right to note that the betrayal of the French Communist Party (PCF) played a decisive role in the defeat. However, this doesn’t recognise the fact that the PCF’s structures were used to mobilise massive sections of the movement in the first place - particularly the powerful unions under the party’s aegis. Of course the bureaucratic, reformist party was slow to move, but to universally ascribe an anti-hierarchical politics as the essential character of the uprising is unusual when many members of this same uprising were members of the Communist Party. Indeed, it is for that exact reason that the PCF was effective at quashing the insurrection.
Interestingly, Redwood’s perspective also ignores the fact that while the PCF ultimately played a role in undermining the movement, there were other organisations that did not. In particular, large Maoist and Trotskyist organisations played a significant role in the organising leading up to and during the insurrectionary rising of May ‘68. In fact their role was so prominent in certain sectors that following the uprisings groups like the Union of Young Communists (Marxist-Leninist) were banned by the French state. This does not necessarily look like the image of vanguardism that Redwood portrays, an idea that has entirely “lost credence” following the failings of the USSR to build a democratic and free socialist society.
This is not to say the revolution in May ‘68 was a vanguardist set piece, rather, it was a complex, shifting and contradictory rising which involved many different and competing political perspectives. This leads us to our second critique of Redwood’s historical account—their apparent misunderstanding of revolution.
From the way the piece discusses May ‘68, one would think that all preceding revolutions had been vanguardist marches to power involving disciplined armies, standing in stark contrast to the new ways of doing rebellion that came into vogue after ‘68. By emphasising the idea that May ‘68 was a different way of doing struggle from those of the past, Redwood’s piece masks an important historical reality—that in fact all revolutions resemble the one in May 1968. This is not to flatten the differences between revolutionary experiences in different contexts, but the idea that May ‘68 was significantly distinct to Russia in 1917, Spain in 1936 or China in 1949 is simply not borne out by historical fact. All revolutions are moments of popular upsurge, of different possibilities being opened and closed in rapid succession, and a “festival of the oppressed”. They are the places where the masses enter the stage of history, subaltern no longer, as protagonists of their social world.
A cursory reading of Petrograd in 1917 will give a different yet familiar feeling to the one that is so often described in the Latin Quarter in the early days of the uprising. Ironically, in removing May ‘68 from the long history of revolutions against capitalism, within this piece Redwood engages in a practice they themselves denounce in the text—they rob May ‘68 of its potential by framing it as a mysterious one-off, divorced from the past (and arguably the future) of revolutionary struggles by a mighty gyre.
This is all important for a couple of reasons. This misreading of the May rebellion serves as the justification for Redwood’s later theoretical and strategic claims, and therefore needs to be addressed. Because despite Redwood's rhetorical movements, the revolution of May 1968 did not succeed in bringing down capitalism (and this is an important fact). And Redwood’s article, while being nominally about the uprising of May ‘68, is not about May ‘68 at all.
Act Two - Spontaneity, Organisation and the Death of Strategy
We know that to win a battle it is not enough to want to win, it is necessary to plan well for the fight. To plan in such a way that allow us to attack the enemy, defeating it little by little. We have already seen how the guerrilla method worked in the Cuban situation. Now, to plan such “combat” we have to know the terrain on which we are fighting, and we have to know it very well. We have to know the enemy and its strength and we also have to know our own strength: what are the weak and strong points of the enemy and what are our weak and strong points. - Marta Harnecker, Instruments for Doing Politics
Many in the late 20th century fetishized the question of leadership, treating the mass movement as essentially subordinate. (This was even true of political currents which, on a strictly theoretical level, would tell you that the mass movement was ultimately decisive and ought to be in control.) Recognizing this error some have more recently swung the ideological pendulum too far in the other direction, fetishizing the spontaneity and creativity of the mass movement to the point where the need for a cadre organization virtually disappears. What is needed is a synthesis between these two extremes—a cadre organization which is conscious of why it exists and therefore understands that in the end it must be subordinate to the mass movement, not a force which can dictate to or manipulate the struggle based on some superior “scientific” knowledge. - Editor’s Introduction to Marta Harnecker’s Ideas for the Struggle
Redwood’s piece is fundamentally about revolution, organisation and strategy, and ultimately how these vital categories relate to one another. In this, Redwood is stepping into a rich vein of debate. These issues have been the most important debates on the left since the French Revolution, and particularly since the First International. In their piece, Redwood makes a claim that is particularly interesting and worth of extensive discussion of its merits and implications—that revolutions cannot and should not be assessed by a metric of “success or failure”.
In Redwood’s view, revolutions are flourishings of collective life, where different forms of living - long marginalised and repressed by the dominant order - are allowed to express themselves and grow. In this view, revolutions are moments of a great flourishing; they are not battles, nor are they conflicts that need to be won or lost.
In Redwood’s own words:
"As such, when anyone labels the uprising of May 68 as a failed revolution, it bears recalling the self-evident fact that no revolution has ever defeated capital and broken the colonial matrix of power. The discourse around “successful” and “failed” revolutions is distracting and obscures any clues that might be revealed by how May 68 played out: the uprising didn’t succeed or fail, it happened."
This viewpoint poses a series of interesting questions for us, questions that we do not think Redwood’s piece sufficiently answers. If we cannot assess the success or failure of a particular revolutionary period, how can we develop strategy to transform the world? Surely strategy—a plan of action by which we seek to achieve our aims—is premised on the notion that we can assess success and failure.
This perspective renders strategy impossible. This is ultimately a problem. For while Redwood’s piece appears to write off every revolutionary struggle as having not achieved the goal of overthrowing the international capitalist system, this flattening of the vast experience of revolution ignores that there is a lot that can be learned - these revolutions failed in different ways and achieved different things, and some got a lot further toward overthrowing the system of capitalist social relations than others.
This denial of strategy often emerges from a particular understanding of political reality. The viewpoint held by Redwood and others in particular academic and political layers is one that is particularly focussed on individual experience, in particular the layers and universes of difference between each varied experience of social life. Now, we are not going to deny that the human experience is vast—there are seven billion of us in this world—but to emphasise and even fetishise difference is to deny the possibility for politics. For politics is the formation of a general will, the establishment of a means of collectivising vast experiences into a narrative which is representative enough to bring people into a project to re-organise their lives. This is not about the denial of difference, but rather the emergence of a profound unity on the basis of differences—we have come together through our commonalities, acknowledging our differences, to glimpse a common horizon where everything can be transformed.
Ironically, it is this exact form of general will formation mentioned by the one anonymous proletarian referenced by Redwood in their own piece: “It is not a problem of knowing who will be at the head of everyone, but rather how everyone will form one head." Within the philosophical and political framework on display in Redwood’s piece, this possibility—that the vast differences of our lives can be brought together to make up a single popular momentum —is totally denied.
We cannot accept this denial of strategy, simply because we do not share this understanding of revolution. For when it comes down to it, revolution is a struggle between opposing social forces, one which is waged through organised violence, and in which life and death are at stake.
Act Three - Boiled in Sea Water, Bombed by Drones
A revolution is a struggle to the death between the future and the past. - Fidel Castro
A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another. - Mao Zedong
As such, rather than thinking of revolutions in terms of alternative realities which might win or lose, we could instead be better off thinking of revolutions in terms of optional realities that coexist, coproduce each other, and are always already entangled in power dynamics. The problem with using the language of alternatives is that it forces you to accept the logic that there is a dominant reality “to which nothing but alternatives could exist. You lose the match before starting the game.” - Taylor Redwood, “Rupture”, emphasis our own
Here Redwood outlines a key feature of their understanding of revolution—that revolution is a process of different realities establishing themselves, independent of the reality that is perceived as dominant. This is where Redwood critiques the late, great Mark Fisher for talking about “alternatives” to capitalism. By talking about alternatives, according to Redwood, you accept the dominance of capitalist narratives. In this view, there is no “reality”, only many different viewpoints that constitute different lived worlds. The solution then is to grow our own realities, outside of the ones that consider themselves so dominant and powerful.
There is problems with this theorisation, however. Capitalism is the dominant reality not because it is largely agreed on as the best ideology, or the most prominent “reality” but because it has been historically constituted in the real material world. Capitalism is the internationally dominant system of exploitation, oppression and mass murder, controlling almost every single aspect of our lives from where we live to how we work, and it rules because it has the ability to rain bombs and bullets on those who oppose it. An inner-city retiree who grows their own vegetables in the community garden does not exist in some alternate reality, set apart from the brutality of capitalism. Their ability to do so hinges on the state not arriving to tear what little common land they have from them. To pretend otherwise, as if we can create pockets of ideologically different realities and ignore the real material threats poised to us by those who hold power is, at minimum, bizarre.
Capitalism is the dominant reality because when people resist it they are imprisoned or killed. Capitalism is not a bogeyman that lives in our heads, it is a real system, that kills real, flesh and blood people. Redwood’s position is ultimately a perspective of philosophical idealism—where the problems of our world exist on the level of ideas. It is these ideas, and not material conditions which shape the world, according to idealist philosophers. Therefore, if we break from the worst ideas in our society, we break from the bad society itself. Never mind that the proletariat’s loyalty to the idea of capitalism needs to be constantly reinforced, like a ship desperately shoring up leaks, as the horrors of capitalism continue to present themselves. Never mind that only a system which holds absolute economic and state power could even run such a daunting ideological task. If we didn’t believe in capitalism, it wouldn’t exist! If we wish hard enough, anything is possible.
Even in our historical example of May ‘68, the utilisation of armed suppression was the final argument of the ruling class. It was the embattled and discredited de Gaulle government that called on the military to intervene in the conflict. Across Europe and beyond, the revolutionary events of 1968 were met with fierce repression - from the strategy of tension in Italy, mass killings by the dictatorships in Greece and Turkey, all the way to the mass murders in Mexico City and the assassination of political leaders in the United States. Violence is the ultimate language of power - the only language it is truly fluent in. This is not to deny the role of ideology and the power of hegemonic ideas—capitalism does colonise our modes of thoughts and action in every way—but this ideological dominance is a reflection of capital’s political and finally military dominance. For when ideology fails, force will still decide.
We live in a period of global ecological catastrophe, runaway economic inequality and increasing repression. These are the problems of a system of political economy, of real relationships between people and capital and nature and technology manifesting as systems of power such as capitalism, patriarchy and colonialism. These are not different “stories” or “narratives” or “realities”; they are real material structures that dominate and shape our world and produce struggle and resistance at their points of antagonism and contradiction. Power here is not based in nebulous “realities” which differ from person to person like a world-encompassing version of Rashomon. Power is held by those structures which have the resources to do so. We will need to physically take those resources if we wish to hold power. And if we wish to change the hell world that we are in, then we will need the power to do so.
What else happens when the bullets fly? What else happens when the tanks roll in? What else happens when our project to re-imagine the world is met with the treatment they gave Cuba, or Vietnam, or the early Soviet Republic, or Chile, or Granada, or Nicaragua, or Burkina Faso, or El Salvador, or Guatemala?
Redwood’s position sees the problem as one of needing to imagine the world differently, when the reality is that the problem is material, as well as ideological. We do not just need to imagine our lives transformed, we need to transform our lives. This has always and will always require us to fight, to struggle, to build organisations, to overcome all challenges and overthrow our enemies—the capitalists, their politicians and the racist, backwards forces that defend them. We need to take and wield power. In our view, the perspective on display in Redwood’s piece would lead us into complacency, defeatism and ultimately liberalism.
Act Four - Think Like a Liberal
For a politics of emancipation, the enemy that is to be feared most is not repression at the hands of the established order. It is the interiority of nihilism, and the unbounded cruelty that can come with its emptiness. - Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis
This is where we arrive at Rupture’s discussion of strategy, an interesting element in a piece that, by rejecting the concepts of success or failure, seems to implicitly call the utility of strategy into question. For Redwood the path forward is clearly outlined in the road taken by the rioters of ‘68—a reading of the events that does not seem obvious to us. We need to build our own, diverging realities, growing them and expanding our capacity for freedom and self-actualisation in our own, decentralised, pre-figurative ways. By placing the question of state power on the backburner, we can wriggle around the difficult questions of power and strategy, plant community gardens, and wait for the hollowed-out capitalist state to collapse from the inside. These are politics which begin and end with self-care. If each of us tends to our own, comfortable, inner-suburban hobbies then we will reach the enlightenment of self-actualisation: becoming people who are mentally prepared to break from the ideology of capitalism.
The reason that the strategic outline offered in Redwood’s piece ends in a politics of complacency, is because it is fundamentally defeatist in its outlook. It represents a total retreat from the idea that mass movements articulating a clear program can transform society as a whole. As such, its natural evolution is to advocate for forms of political action that do not require such a perspective of movement building and coalition construction - forms of action which are decentralised, local and able to be built within the frame of reference developed by the narrow well of immediate experience.
This self-help politics is a total denial of the historical actuality of struggle and the reality of revolution. It is also a politics that often places street parties, and community gardening, and niche artistic scenes at the centre of a emancipatory political project (interestingly, a political praxis that often leads us to activities we already find comfortable and fun). If we just create enough different ways of living, says Redwood, we can hollow the system out from within, causing it to eventually collapse—we throw a street party that never ends.
However, revolution is not a street party. It is a bloody struggle. All historical experiences of revolution show us this fact. To deny it is folly at best, utter sabotage at worst. A movement that was to place this vision of struggle at the centre of its perspective would commit suicide - confining itself to the margins, the periphery, content to always get its ass kicked with dignity. For the ruling class cannot be wished away, and they have proven their bloodlust in the past - they will hold onto power with all they have and they will never give up.
But those who ascribe to prefigurative politics are fortunate in this regard. For the bombs will never fall, and the bullets will never fly, because their politics will never be a tangible threat to the status quo. This image of revolution as street parties and community days in the park is not a threat to the ruling class. To paraphrase Jodi Dean, global imperialism does not give a fuck whether you raise chickens. Ultimately, this politics is a way of letting ourselves off the hook. We get to find political fulfillment in the things we already were doing. And when the seas boil and the people of Bangladesh drown, we can wring our hands, attend the vigil and tell each other how sorry we feel.
However, to be fair, Redwood does briefly raise a secondary part of this strategy. In order to combat the fact that capitalism is a bloody system of mass murder it would be necessary to “simultaneously engage with and infiltrate the formal structures of government”. In this piece Redwood makes the case that an effective movement would require a systematic infiltration of state institutions, gaining positions in government departments and universities. Exactly how is unclear, and the exact role these elite infiltrators will play is not entirely articulated. Nonetheless, infiltration and a long march through the institutions is presented as the means by which we will address the problem of the state - surely the single most important point in the making of revolution.
Act Five - Because you are one…
Socialism is the people. If you're afraid of socialism, you're afraid of yourself. - Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defence
Capitalism will never fall on its own.
It will have to be pushed.
The accumulation of capital will never cease.
It will have to be stopped.
The capitalist class will never willingly surrender its power.
It will have to be dispossessed. - David Harvey
And just like that, we have the punchline. After all of that, after the discussion of the great wave of May ‘68, Redwood arrives at the final station in the long line. Liberalism.
It's just liberalism, plain and simple. Change the system from within, hollow out the power structures, and take a long march through the institutions. With this Redwood would ask us to place the question of the state—the single most important element of a revolutionary perspective—into the hands of liberal elites who are tasked with infiltration of the means of repression and control.
In a bitter irony, Redwood’s piece joins with the Communist Party of France at their most diminished and reformist point—it agrees that revolution must not seek to overthrow the capitalist class, and therefore leaves that problem to the chosen few. You focus on your gardens and your street parties—for the question of power is to be left in their hands.
We can see that the political line of march offered here leads to a political dead-end. Unable to overcome capitalism through their dominant method, and unwilling to seriously engage with the actual practice of revolution and its essence—the power of the working class—this tendency reverts to liberalism. Liberalism, which embodies the ideological ego in capitalist society, is the final position of all ideological trends that are incapable of surpassing capitalist forms and the limits imposed by capitalist society.
These two points in the strategy, collective gatherings on the streets and liberal infiltrators reinforce what we see as Redwood’s unspoken point—that ordinary working people should never concern themselves with the seizure of power, they must never make their messy revolution. In a world of growing crisis, where global capitalism seems set to enter a incredibly destructive phase, this is simply not acceptable.
This is not to say that the molecular and everyday manifestations of different forms of social life have no place in our politics. A mass movement that can overthrow the capitalist world system will need to reach into every aspect of our lives, transforming the way we live, work, travel and enjoy our place in the world. Politics is not just the domain of mass politics, of economic theory and of international struggles. However, these molecular changes in social relations are a complement to the construction of mass revolutionary movements and organisations, not an alternative to them, and ultimately they are not two counterposed strategies.
There is another way forward. The question of revolution is still vital, and as messy and complex as it is, it is still the path forward for humanity. We have glimpsed a shining light ahead of us, that can lead us out of the fetid mess that is global capitalism, imperialism, colonialism and patriarchy. We can build a movement that can build new communities of solidarity, structures of social transformation, infrastructures of resistance and ultimately armies ready to bring down an unjust system. In order to match the international ruling class and their system, we need to reinvigorate an international movement with an international level of organisation, that can unify our vast differences in experience into a movement that can represent all of us and build a world where we can all live together in peace and freedom.
We must break out of the ‘debate’ that communicative capitalism in which capital is endlessly cajoling us to participate in, and remember that we are involved in a class struggle. The goal is not to ‘be’ an activist, but to aid the working class to activate – and transform – itself. Outside the Vampires’ Castle, anything is possible. - Mark Fisher, Exiting the Vampire Castle
Lucinda Donovan and Anni McAllen are young women, communists and vampire hunters in Meanjin (Brisbane).
Lucinda Donovan is an (alleged) anthropologist, communist and feminist who rants often, and writes sometimes, in the sunny suburbs of Brisbane. You can follow her on twitter @gaylittlehands.
Anni McAllen is a latter-day Bolshevik, communist organiser, trans woman and mediocre blogger. She writes about political economy, revolution and queer, working class lives. You can read her work at Subterranean Fire and follow her on twitter @communa161.
The Communist Hypothesis - Alain Badiou
“France 1968” in Revolutionary Rehearsals - Ian Birchall
When Poetry Ruled the Streets: The French May Events of 1968 - Andrew Feenberg and Jim Freedman
May Made Me: An Oral History of the 1968 Uprising in France - Mitchell Abidor
Image of Rue Paul-Bert in Bordeaux, May 1968. Reused via Wikimedia Commons.