What is to be done for our time?
How do we not only critique but actually do something about the current bigotry, oppression, and prejudice against women, minorities, the LGBT community, and refugees and immigrants? How to combat what appears to be a resurgent tendency toward populist fascism, hatred, spite, ethno-nationalist, and intolerant right-wing politics? As I look on what’s happening in UK and the EU in general, as well as here in my own country of the U.S. one looks no longer for some savvy thinker to come along and present a solution. I think we’re well past the notion that art, philosophy, or rhetorical persuasion is going to do anything more than stir the pot to one extreme or the other. Then what? What’s left for us to do?
Lenin in What is to be done? once said, “…no one, we think, has up to now doubted that the strength of the modern movement lies in the awakening of the masses (principally, the industrial prole-tariat), and that its weakness lies in the lack of consciousness and initiative among the revolutionary leaders.”1 But we have no revolution, and much more all our supposed leaders on the Left have vacated the premises or colluded with the center to right in decisions politically or otherwise; and, if not, they offer lukewarm drivel and rhetorical flourishes and gestures rather than something worthy of revolutionary temper and prospects of change. Even Lenin had to admit that the theory of socialism “grew out of the philosophic, historical and economic theories that were elaborated by the educated representatives of the propertied classes, the intellectuals. According to their social status, the founders of modern scientific socialism, Marx and Engels, themselves belonged to the bourgeois intelligentsia.”(74) So does that mean we must wait around for some bourgeois or middle-class bull-shit artist to tell us what to do? I hope not. But the better question is: What would an actual revolution entail today? Obviously the old school armed takeover seems beyond us, since we’re talking global capitalism; unless one is thinking of a global revolution – which, may not be such a bad idea after all, but need it be armed revolt, or is their a better, more intelligent way?
Yet, more and more if one looks around at the “bourgeois intelligentsia” of our era we see a great many names, but none that actually offer a theory or update to socialist thought and praxis; or at least one that can convey a political movement for our time. Why? One could spend years discussing, reading, thinking through just a handful of thinkers like Negri and Hardt, Badiou and Zizek, are any other of several epigones, antagonists, pros/cons, etc. from the post-moderns to the new materialists, etc. but where would that get us? No one would in the end agree to a platform for the Left much rather they’d throw monkey-wrenches at each other and play the blame game rather than create a viable path forward.
John Merrick in a recent article about British politics offers this:
“We must not underestimate the severity of the conditions facing us if we hope for a socialist renewal in Britain. Part of this must be to recognize the British state as the bulwark against change that it is. To note that Britain’s state contains overwhelming anti-democratic structures and privileges is not to argue for some teleological solution for a new, fully bourgeois revolution to democratize it, as if the road to socialism is paved with bourgeois democracy; the experiences of left-wing governments almost universally has been one of open hostility no matter how democratic the state structures. Rather, such an assessment of the particularities of the British state must be made precisely to make clear the dangers involved in the parliamentary road to socialism in Britain, and, fundamentally, the hard road to renewal that lies ahead.” (see: Corbyn Blimey: Labour and the Present Crisis http://salvage.zone/in-print/corbyn-labour-and-the-present-crisis/)
But isn’t this the same for every Statist system of so to speak, Democracy, in the world today? Left-wing politics speaks of socialism but never defines it, offers no real solution but rather falls back on old shibboleths and party slogans, failed politics of past eras and utopian thought of former systems now dead and buried. Where does that get us? If we can’t offer a solution for our own time, think for our own time, step out from under the shadow of failure and invent a solution that is viable and practical that can actually convince working class people not only that the rhetoric is there, but that the very real practice not just theory can be enacted in their daily lives is the Left a mere husk of a ghostly past? If ideas are not living what are they? Is the Left a zombie organism seeking new flesh, or a living entity full of new ideas for a new world?
Yet, as Zizek suggests things are not so easy anymore, the notions of everything being bound by class distinctions and old school socialist notions have vanished:
“I think that the other side of globalisation is the rise of new invisible walls. We have unemployed, we have precarious workers, even here in Slovenia. I read somewhere that almost half of the workers already work only precariously. You have failed countries, you have those who live in slums, who are excluded.
“So it’s no longer the old clear class distinction, it’s a much more vague distinction between those who are in, enjoying a basic security, full civil rights and so on and those who are out. We need some transnational power to enforce more global decisions. Ecology cannot be saved, migration cases cannot be saved without such mechanisms.”
(see Zizek warns about “invisible walls” http://www.euronews.com/2016/06/09/the-other-side-of-globalisation-is-the-rise-of-new-invisible-walls-says/)
So it’s about those who are include and the exclude. A world of Human Security Regimes and all those at the periphery living in exclusionary zones of poverty, invisibility, and ultimately death. But what a “transnational power to enforce global decisions” look like that was not some centralize neoliberal machine of domination and control? Isn’t the putting the cart before the horse? Why would we think there would be put in place a transnational legal apparatus that would be on the side of the “excluded,” much rather would it enact laws and govern the included/excluded in much the same way that things are done now across the planet? We’d see a Law of the Iron Fist, a beneficent dictatorship of Laws and Regulatory controls over every aspect of our lives. No more sovereignty, or singularity; rather as Stiegler suggests, we’d lose our individuation, become mere products of our network dividual traces controlled and shaped to the desires of capitalist agendas. Would such a governing council or legal system do away with the U.N.? Become even stronger – since, as Zizek suggests, it would have actual “enforcement” capabilities? As he admits Europe doesn’t know what it wants, and I’d say the same of the U.S. are probably any democratic nation on the planet. They all seem to be confused, perplexed, unable to do anything at all but bicker, fight, and generally get nothing done for their people. Then Zizek hits the nail on the head, saying, “the problem is that there is a certain rage in Europe, like the decline of the welfare state, and so on and so on. What those dissatisfied people in Europe, what bothers them, is part of the same crisis: imbalance of global capitalism.”
It always comes back down to this thing called “capitalism” that the Left seems powerless to confront or do anything about, much less destroy it, overcome it, reform it, or even change it in any form or fashion? Isn’t this the real issue of the Left, the problem that want go away? The Left is little more than text, ideas, a worldwide communication network of disaffected singularities that are seeking a way out of capitalism but unable to find one. For Zizek global capitalism in U.S., EU, Russian, China, India and so on and so forth are all “proto-fascist authoritarian” regimes moving toward the full blow corporate infusion of a Global Fascist State.
So again, What do you want? Since there is no actual “we” Left or otherwise, not body or movement, no revolution or even a theory/practice of such a thing to combat the world of proto-fascist capitalism in the world today. What next? Lenin would also say:
Revolutionary experience and organizational skill are things that can be acquired provided the desire is there to acquire these qualities, provided the shortcomings are recognized— which in revolutionary activity is more than halfway towards removing them! (77)
The question is: Do we have the desire, the will to act? Is the notion of a general will even viable in this involuntarist age of rationalism and rationalizations? In a time when the very notion of singularity, of the individual or individuation seems not only under attack but dead within democratic materialist circles of neurosciences, etc. how to attain or reattain our singularity? Maybe the next question from Lenin needs to be asked:
What does political education mean?
As he’ll suggest, it is not enough to explain to the workers that they are politically oppressed, advantage must be taken of every concrete example of this oppression for the purpose of agitation. (95) Agitation begins through the political exposure of autocracy in all its aspects, by way of concrete exposure of examples in every domain to show how the Oligarchies, elites, wealthy classes manipulate and capture the desires of the people to their advantage, enslave the worker in every aspect of their lives under false semblance. Even our notions of communism are spurious at best as Lenin suggests in his reading of Marx and Engels. As he’ll ask: “On the basis of what data can the question of the future development of future communism be raised?” His answer:
On the basis of the fact that it has its origin in capitalism, that it develops historically from capitalism, that it is the result of the action of a social force to which capitalism has given birth. There is no trace of an attempt on Marx’s part to conjure up a utopia, to make idle guesses about what cannot be known. Marx treats the question of communism in the same way as a naturalist would treat the question of the development of, say, a new biological species, if he knew that such and such was its origin, and such and such the direction in which it was changing. (334)
Read that again. Communism is not some utopian nowhere, some vision of a fantastic primitive society made present in our time, but rather “it develops historically from capitalism”. In other words for Marx capitalism is not the enemy but the State is, and it would be a long length process of withering away of the State. Marx would say simply “The present-day state’ is therefore a fiction”. (335) Yet, a necessary one. As Marx would stipulate,
In this sense it is possible to speak of the ‘present-day state,’ in contrast to the future, in which its present root, bourgeois society, will have died away.(335)
So in this sense it is the form of society, the bourgeois society that will wither away and be replaced by something else, communism. Are we possibly already in the midst of such a transition, but that it is so confusing that we see only chaos and disparity? We assume our masters, the neoliberal globalists are truly in control when in fact their systems may be crumbling underneath the very dark power of their own toxic statecraft? Is so as Marx asks,
“The question then arises: what transformation will the state undergo in communist society? In other words, what social functions will remain in existence there that are analogous to the present functions of the state?” (335)
Then Lenin steps in with the hammer:
The first fact that has been established with complete exactitude by the whole theory of development, by science as a whole— a fact which the utopians forget, and which is forgotten by present-day opportunists who are afraid of the socialist revolution— is that, historically, there must undoubtedly be a special stage or epoch of transition from capitalism to communism. (335)
Are we not now already well into that transition, an epoch movement from the older bourgeois society and worldview? And then comes the most misinterpreted passage of all in Marx:
“Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. There corresponds to this also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.” (335)
What does this really mean? This notion of the “revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat”? What’s interesting is Lenin’s remark, “Marx bases this conclusion on an analysis of the role played by the proletariat in modern capitalist society, on the data concerning the development of this society…”(335). Marx was already in his notions of data analysis prefiguring all those simulations, those advanced data analysis algorithms and modeling systems we now use to forecast and predict what is coming at us, the so called trends toward which the movement of society is heading.
In fact, Lenin tells us that the erroneous notion that the proletariat must overthrow the bourgeoisie, conquer political power and establish its own revolutionary dictatorship (336) is false, that for Marx the transition from capitalist society— which is developing towards communism— to a communist society is impossible without a “political transition period,” and the state in this period can only be the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat. (336) So we’re speaking of a temporal movement, a transitional phase shift requiring this state form. Lenin will as another question: What is the relation of this dictatorship to democracy? He’ll find it in the original Communist Manifesto:
“to raise the proletariat to the position of the ruling class” and “to win the battle of democracy.” (336)
In other words the workers will become the rulers and win the battle that both parliamentary and representative forms of democracy divided between the wealthy and the workers was unable to overcome. In fact Lenin spells it out:
In capitalist society, under the conditions most favorable to its development, we have more or less complete democracy in the democratic republic. But this democracy is always restricted by the narrow framework of capitalist exploitation, and consequently always remains, in reality, a democracy for the minority, only for the possessing classes, only for the rich. (336)
In other words we’re living in a Plutocracy and Oligarchy of the Wealthy classes who possess all the wealth (i.e., our so to speak upper .01%). In fact what we term democracy was once stated by Marx this way that the oppressed were allowed, once every few years, to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class should misrepresent them in parliament!(337) But here comes the crux of Lenin’s argument for this revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat:
But from this capitalist democracy— inevitably narrow, tacitly repelling the poor, and therefore hypocritical and false to the core— development does not proceed simply, smoothly and directly to “greater and greater democracy,” as the liberal professors and petty-bourgeois opportunists would have us believe. No, development— towards communism— proceeds through the dictatorship of the proletariat; it cannot do otherwise, for the resistance of the capitalist exploiters cannot be broken by anyone else or in any other way. (337)
In other words the property owners, the wealthy, the upper 01% that control most of the world’s wealth are not going easy into the night; no, much rather they’ll go out fighting, kicking, battling in any way possible, killing, maiming, destroying everything and everyone in their way to defend their wealth and power. This is where the harsh truth must be accepted, even violence:
Simultaneously with an immense expansion of democracy which for the first time becomes democracy for the poor, democracy for the people, and not democracy for the rich, the dictatorship of the proletariat imposes a series of restrictions on the freedom of the oppressors, the exploiters, the capitalists. We must crush them in order to free humanity from wage-slavery; their resistance must be broken by force; it is clear that where there is suppression there is also violence, there is no freedom, no democracy. (338)
The goal here is to end work as wage-slavery – the poor, the worker will no longer be bound to the wheel of surplus-value, no longer be the foot soldier from whom the capitalist sucks his accumulated profits. But to do this their back must be broken, they must be forced out of their positions of power and their wealth distributed equally to all and sundry. The rich will be stripped of their power and become equals among equals no longer hording their wealth, property, and power. So the point here is that the State will last as long as Engel says,
“so long as the proletariat still uses the state it does not use it in the interests of freedom but in order to hold down its adversaries, and as soon as it becomes possible to speak of freedom the state as such ceases to exist.” (338)
Democracy for the vast majority of the people, and suppression by force, i.e., exclusion from democracy, of the exploiters and oppressors of the people— this is the change democracy undergoes during the transition from capitalism to communism.
Should we call this The Great Reversal: The Expulsion of the Oppressors? Not bein a utopianist but rather a realist Lenin knew this would not come about easily: “We are not utopians, and we do not in the least deny the possibility and inevitability of excesses on the part of individual persons, or the need to suppress such excesses.” (339) Lenin’s reading of Marx was under no illusion as to this transition, quoting Marx,
“What we have to deal with here [in analyzing the program of the Party] is a communist society not as it has developed on its own foundations, but on the contrary as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect economically, morally and intellectually still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.” (340)
In other words communism is tied to capitalism in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually as if still trailing the blood and water of its parental womb’s offal. Many people think all the base structures of society will just vanish which is erroneous, a superficial reading of Marx and Lenin. In other words what changes is the notion of capital accumulation and property:
The means of production are no longer the private property of individuals. The means of production belong to the whole of society. Every member of society, performing a certain part of socially-necessary labor, receives a certificate from society to the effect that he has done such and such an amount of work. According to this certificate, he receives from the public warehouses, where articles of consumption are stored, a corresponding quantity of products. Deducting that proportion of labor which goes to the public fund, every worker, therefore, receives from society as much as he has given it. (341)
Pragmatic, realist, practical: this is the path from capitalism to communism. Yet, for all those who want to say, but people aren’t all equal are they? Lenin will suggest from Marx that people are not alike: one is strong, another is weak; one is married, another is not; one has more children, another has less, and so on. And the conclusion Marx draws is: “… with an equal output and hence an equal share in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another and so on. To avoid all these defects, right, instead of being equal, would have to be unequal.” (341) Hence as Lenin truthfully tells us ”
the first phase of communism cannot produce justice and equality; differences, and unjust differences, in wealth will still exist, but the exploitation of man by man will have become impossible, because it will be impossible to seize the means of production, the factories, machines, land, etc., as private property.(341)
So this transition is in phases, not all at once. This is not a utopia, but rather real life lived by actual humans with all their actual failings. Marx was no fool, he knew men were naturally unequal. As Lenin says, “Marx not only scrupulously takes into account the inevitable inequality of men; he also takes into account the fact that the mere conversion of the means of production into the common property of the whole of society does not remove the defects of distribution and the inequality of “bourgeois right” which continue to prevail as long as the products are divided “according to the amount of work performed.” (342)
This is a “defect,” says Marx, but it is unavoidable in the first phase of communism; for if we are not to fall into utopianism, we cannot imagine that, having overthrown capitalism, people will at once learn to work for society without any standard of right; indeed, the abolition of capitalism does not immediately create the economic prerequisites for such a change. (342) So for all those that accuse Marx or Lenin for Idealism one should rethink what they actually said. One cannot attribute to either Marx or Lenin the aberrant outcomes of Stalin or Mao.
So during this transitional phase there is still a need for the institution of the State as Guardian and Custodian of the transition. To this extent, therefore, there is still need for a state, which, while safeguarding the public ownership of the means of production, would safeguard the equality of labor and equality in the distribution of products. (343)
Yet, things cannot remain in this transitional phase, there must come a higher phase as Marx will suggest:
“In a higher phase of communist society after the enslaving subordination of individuals under division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not merely a means to live but has become itself the primary necessity of life; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly— only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be fully left behind and society inscribe on its banners: from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” (343)
Already here we see prefigured aspects of our automation society with the removal of the “antithesis between mental and physical labor” vanishing as machines replace humans, and humans are provided with the necessaries of life, and can then use their free time to increase the “all-round development of the individual”. This is a society based on cooperation and singularity, an educated society of free individuals who are enabled to construct a world of wealth within which all share and are provided for “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”.
From our present capitalist society it is easy to declare such a social order to be “a pure utopia,” and to sneer at the Socialists for promising everyone the right to receive from society, without any control of the labor of the individual citizen, any quantity of truffles, automobiles, pianos, etc. Even now, most bourgeois “savants” make shift with such sneers, thereby displaying at once their ignorance and their selfish defense of capitalism. (344)
As Lenin projects the world that grows out of the demise of present capitalism in this two-fold transition will be long and difficult path, and the State will remain as an institution in the transition until all have learned the art of administration, and will indeed independently administer social production, will independently keep accounts, control the idlers, the gentlefolk, the swindlers and similar “guardians of capitalist traditions,” the escape from this national accounting and control will in-inevitably become so increasingly difficult, such a rare exception, and will probably be accompanied by such swift and severe punishment (for the armed workers are practical men and not sentimental intellectuals, and they will scarcely allow anyone to trifle with them), that very soon the necessity of observing the simple, fundamental rules of human intercourse will become a habit. (349)
The State will vanish when it is no longer needed, when society through custom and habitual practice enacts the very thing we now only dream of: a fully lived life where humans cooperate and share in justice, freedom, and egalitarian values.
1. Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich. Essential Works of Lenin: What Is to Be Done? and Other Writings (pp. 72-73). Dover Publications. Kindle Edition.