In 1996, I declared myself to be a “revolutionary socialist.” I then drifted through the Communist Party USA, the Committees of Correspondence, and finally Freedom Road Socialist Organization (the NYC-based one). In late 2006, I dropped out and did manual labor for a few years to deal with near-terminal burnout and a growing assortment of increasingly risky behaviors.
What did that mean . . . “revolutionary” socialist? As opposed to some other kind of socialist? What do we mean when we say “revolution”? In a nutshell, speaking for myself back then, it meant that I believed there is no “parliamentary” means for achieving “socialism,” and by socialism, I meant the systematic liquidation of the capitalist class (no, not by killing them, but by taking away their money/power and converting all large-scale enterprise into public utilities . . . okay, some people also want to kill them).
The subtext . . . just being honest . . . was that this could only be achieved through violence. There were many reasons to eschew violence in the meantime — we were quite critical of the adventurist tendencies of the Black Block and other youthful, more testosterone-fired formations. So while we ultimately saw a violent interlude prior to the implementation of transformative public policies, we didn’t have that adolescent lean-in that romanticized violence. We simply believed that at some point violence would be “necessary,” that without “revolutionary civil war” there was no revolution. It was part of our overall schema, and it also gave us a kind of comfort in times of high dudgeon — our anger displaced into a fantasy future where the bad guys got what they so richly deserved and we could rewrite society like it was a blank page.
Underneath it all, there was a teleology. Apart from the anarchists — from Chomsky to the Black Block — my colleagues were uniformly “Marxist,” though there were multiple interpretations of what that meant, too. That teleology was always utopian, even though its first narrators (Marx and Engels) claimed they were “scientific” socialists, as opposed to (ick) “utopian” socialists. The CPUSA even referred to “Marxism-Leninism” (a Stalinist neologism) as “the science of Marxism-Leninism,” as did many others. But the teleology itself remained a kind of New Utopia. This science claim should have alerted me, because it’s transparently preposterous, but nothing is so precious as the comforting illusion.
Teleology is (in philosophy) “the explanation of phenomena in terms of the purpose they serve rather than of the cause by which they arise,” and in theology, “the doctrine of design and purpose in the material world.” Teleology, for our discussion, is the insistence that history is “aimed” at some culminating peak future. In Marx, that meant a long period of socialist rule to effect a thoroughgoing transformation, followed by a “withering away of the state” as a peaceful and stable communist society became evermore self-organized. A secular heaven on earth.
This is a Hegelian idea. Marx was a Hegelian. Hegel’s idea — drastically simplified here — was that, with all its bumps and turns, human history was a history of progress. I call this, sharing the term with Oludamini Ogunnaike, the “myth of progress.” The term “progressive,” which gets thrown around like a Frisbee at a dog park, is rooted in this exact idea . . . and it is the reason I refuse to call myself a “progressive.” It’s a uniquely modern idea and — in its origins — uniquely patriarchal, racist, and imperialist. Marx’s original shade on this progress narrative was that capitalism would accomplish a technological transformation of society (he did not emphasize how utterly Eurocentric this was) that socialists could then take over and use justly for the benefit of all.
Many Marxists cleave to this notion even today, as we tumble into the chasm of species extinction and the near-complete disruption of the biosphere brought on precisely by technological optimism. Technological optimism was always the weakest link in Marxist thinking, but it is the centerpiece of the progress narrative, which was invented by “Enlightenment” European men to celebrate their “conquest of nature,” and to aggrandize themselves as the vanguards of humanity’s “new future.” Social Darwinism was a perfect complement to the progress myth in the nineteenth century, and it was not purged from the “progressive” vocabulary until Hitler’s eugenic programs took the shine off of that. “Proof” of the superiority of white men (then “advanced nations” to conceal progressivism’s racist, sexist, and imperial origins) was always accomplished through a celebration of technology . . . which liberals, from a sense of noblesse oblige, would share with the more genetically “unfortunate,” through “development” — the standard cover for the conquest of commodity frontiers for capital.
The term revolution — a sudden, radical, or complete change — from the Latin for “roll back,” has been incorporated into commodity circuits by capitalism, too, as well as by pop culture. We talk about the Copernican revolution in cosmology, or the digital revolution in technology, or a revolutionary new detergent in TV adverts — it adds a kind of cachet.
In history, we have defined revolution as wars to overthrow despots or oppressive classes: the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Chinese Revolution, the Iranian Revolution, and so on. Trotsky even taxonomized revolutionary phases — political revolution, where the state changes hands but property relations remains undisturbed, and the necessary follow-on of social revolution, where property relations are transformed.
This is not the same, however, as Bernie Sanders’s stump speech that begins, “Are you ready for a political revolution?” . . . which means creating a big change through the political process instead of revolutionary civil war. Meanings are always being made over.
Some socialists talk about The Revolution™, a reference again to its believed inevitability, or teleology. It’s there, but just the acorn waiting to become the oak, an unrealized potential . . . but in a contradictory vein, they also talk about “building the revolution,” not as if it is an Aristotelian potentiality-actuality (acorn to oak), but a house or a bus or a tank, idk. The organic and the mechanical as mirrors of countryside and city? But we’re not here to parse metaphors.
Progress and revolution have a great deal in common, because they have common origins in European/Atlantic thought. Both are teleological, assuming that “the arc of history bends toward” something. Both are post-Enlightenment tropes, and likewise technologically optimistic tropes. Both assume that “societies” can be managed on a large scale — scare quotes on “society” because its modern usage was only hinted at in the sixteenth century and only explicated as we know it today in the nineteenth century.
We objectified “society” by encompassing whole nation-states and-or other large, stable social groupings as objects of study, so we could try and determine these societies’ characteristics. This is a uniquely modern conceit, this pretending we are everywhere and nowhere, that is, somehow above it all (in that ethereal “objective” sphere), in order to conceptually capture and corral a newly defined thing.
But what we call a “society” is not a thing. This is a conceptual illusion called reification — “the fallacy of treating an abstraction as if it were a real thing.” The only way that, for example, the twenty-first century United States can be called a “society” — a thing we can study and for which we can determine certain physical-law-like generalizations about social behavior, development, and control — is by excluding every conceivable exception to those law-like generalizations.
But, alas, we can’t now, never could, and never will be able to determine law-like generalizations about society, which is why the idea of social “science” is not science (as the disciplined practice) at all. Social “science” proceeds upon an article of faith — that eventually we will discover those law-like generalizations. So far, no good. And we never will, because once we quit excluding those inconvenient exceptions, we find that there are very few generalizations we can make about this imaginary entity, society.
This is not to say, along with Margaret Thatcher, e.g., that “there is no such thing as society,” which is classical liberal shorthand for the primacy of an abstract individual — Homo economicus — who is assumed to make decisions completely apart from any cultural context. Culture certainly does exist, even if it is too protean and dynamic for science to sink in its claws, and no human being is formed apart from culture, which even with capitalism’s conformities, always retains particularities that will queer the universalist pitch.
What we’re saying is that society cannot be understood except by inference . . . it is not apprehensible by the scientific method, because (1) actual persons are working things out through bricolage in their day-to-day lives, which makes them tactical and therefore unpredictable, (2) “society” is not a laboratory where messy variables can be excluded, and (3) culture is constituted not only materially but semiotically — and the semiosphere is not material, nor is it reducible to any law-like generalizations. We can infer certain realities from a study of social phenomena — economic trendlines, flows of materials, organizational structures, etc., but “society” is not a thing. It is an idea that emerged within capitalism with its relentless and conquistatory abstractions.
So we have two problems simultaneously here. First, we have the idea that revolution can basically transform society as if The Revolution™ can simply erase “society’s” chalkboard and writing something new on it. Second, we have the now–discredited notion of technological optimism, as we watch our technical advances systematically annihilate the very material bases of human social existence.
So I can’t say “I’m a revolutionary socialist” any more, even though it sounds great — kind if bold and edgy. I can’t even say I’m a socialist without qualifying that with terms like “agrarian” or “subsistence” socialist, because there will be no technological utopia, in my opinion, or any stable utopia . . . ever. What we are facing now is a world that is ruined, ripped up, microtoxified down to the last cell, the last grain of dust, the last drop of water; a world with cities of tens of millions living in desperate favelas; a world with dying and rising oceans; a world in which the climate has been destabilized for millennia. A world of refugees. We are living through a ling period of exterminism, the last stage of imperialism. My socialism is not the socialism of writing a new society on a blank page, but the socialism of disaster triage.
The real work of The Future — what Illich rightly called “a man-eating idol” — is interstitial, creating small new things in the interstices of a decaying capitalist order that will inevitably abandon those spaces a bit at a time. The political work can only facilitate that, or it will become what it opposes . . . as all revolutions have. And revolution that is accomplished with war will be protected by war then regulated by warlike action and finally those who know only war will prevail. There are no exceptions. There never will be.
I’ll cheer with the rest when Bernie gives his stump speech — revolution as shorthand for seeking the power to repress the worst of the vandals. I’m good with that. Figures of speech have a place in this kind of public discourse. But the teleology of progress (and revolution) that assumes the superiority of a Eurocentric schema for the transformation of the world (what incredible hubris!), or that any such delusion can ever become manifest . . . not so much.
There is my heresy for the day.