The current era has been marked by a series of spontaneous protests. These have risen up against numerous institutions, persons, and practices. The right wing version of this has been the Tea Party, the Alt-Right and the election of Donald Trump. The leftist version of this has been Occupy Wall Street in 2010, Black Lives Matter which rose up in 2013 and continues today, and the most recent example of reignited movements (whether its character is mass is up for debate) is the Me Too movement. I say “reignited” to mean that these struggles have not had such acute pronunciation across society, nor taken up such a portion of the national conversation since at least the 1970s. Conversely, it can be said that these movements are no bigger or important than the smallers ones of the 1980s and 90s that we’ve already forgotten. All the same, they are compelling further discussions and represent opportunities of useful exposure. One by one, economic, social, and political struggles have boiled up, and socialists have attempted to interact with them all with hardly any success. Success in doing what?
In shaping the demands of the struggling and oppressed; in integrating their struggles into an intersectional movement against racism, patriarchy, and capitalism; and in converting spontaneous protest into a mass socialist movement and a revolution. Since the 1930s, socialists in the United States have had low levels of success awakening, engaging, and leading the proletariat. For a long time, these failures were in fact the active repression of socialists during the first half of the 20th century. But now, we have advantages those forerunners could never have dreamed of. We operate openly. We have access to infrastructure (the immediacy of telecommunications, and availability of post offices) that was withheld from the socialists of fifty years ago. Yet our successes are only marginally greater. These “successes” are arguably negative. The argument could be made that socialists today stand on weaker ground than ever.
The question is not “why hasn’t any particular struggle ignited revolution”, but “can the socialist movement advance itself through movements that have no political direction, or significant proletarian participation?”
Concerning Me Too and the larger struggle of women’s liberation as it exists– a movement that has an entirely apolitical character, that is widely criticised of multi-lateral bigotry, and that is entirely uninterested in socialist demands– become a tool of the socialist movement?
It’s here where I make a clarification: Nothing about Me Too is necessarily bourgeois or reformist. It is not a movement seeking reforms. It is not a movement making political demands of any sort. It cannot be anything more than a spontaneous movement destined to the fate of the other spontaneous movements.
This clarification is important because while these movements may be spontaneous, and not necessarily bourgeois, liberal, or reformist, any attempt on our part to utilise the opportunity requires contact with the bourgeois, liberals, and reformists.
Returning to the question of “what to do about growing movement culture as socialists” has contending answers. They range from showing critical support to liberal causes to full abstention, while others seek to engage in debate, and agitate among a politicised crowd.
There are two passages of Lenin’s that shed light on how to treat those causes and those organisations which are only partially, or tepidly aligned with the proletarian cause.
As it relates to activism among bourgeois and liberal organisers, we can extrapolate from what Lenin wrote in his pamphlet, “Two Tactics” on the broader topic of bourgeois revolution:
“The bourgeois– Lenin writes–revolution is precisely such a revolution which most resolutely sweeps away the survivals of the past, the remnants of serfdom (which include not only autocracy but monarchy as well); it is a revolution which most fully guarantees the widest, freest, and speediest development of capitalism.
Therefore the bourgeois revolution is in the highest degree advantageous to the proletariat. The bourgeois revolution is absolutely necessary in the interests of the proletariat. The more complete, determined and consistent, the bourgeois revolution is, the more secure will the struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie and for socialism become.”
“Social Democrats– he continues– often express this idea somewhat differently by stating that the bourgeoisie betrays itself, that the bourgeoisie betrays the cause of liberty, that the bourgeoisie is incapable of being consistently democratic. It is to the advantage of the bourgeoisie if the necessary bourgeois democratic changes take place more slowly, more cautiously, with less determination, by means of reform and not by means of revolution; if the changes spare the ‘venerable institutions’ [of previous eras]; if these reforms develop as little as possible the revolutionary initiative and the energy of the common people… especially the workers, for otherwise it will be easier for the workers, as the French say, ‘to pass the rifle from one shoulder to the other,’ i.e.,to turn the guns which the bourgeois revolution will place in their hands… against the bourgeoisie.”
The question at hand in the text is bourgeois revolution and socialist participation in them. The principle at play extends to those forms of organisation which are either reformist, or seemingly reformist while in fact being completely spontaneous.
This bit of text, that Lenin himself describes as “paradoxical”, rings so true! The spontaneous nature of the Me Too movement is a consequence of the same quality Lenin pointed out about the bourgeois reforms in Russia over the years preceding the October Revolution.
The “venerable institutions” of our day are those forms of private property that have become marginally more accessible to women, yet hardly more accessible to marginalised women. Spontaneous movements are always beholden to the limits of dominant classes. Those “trailblazers” of political and economic institutions have showed the same bourgeois reliance on slow, cautious reform so as not to ignite the revolutionary energy of the lower classes, “especially the workers.” What begins as politically directed (bourgeois?) liberalism becomes limited by its own bourgeois nature. Then, it is just a collection of sentiments with neither will nor intention to give them direction or force. Such force or direction would then threaten those “venerable institutions,” and we arrive once more at the limits.
So the bourgeoisie and the reformists, as shown, still today reek of an “inconsistent” democratic character. The job of socialists is to seize upon that timidity and inconsistency, and to commit to speedy and determined reform (revolution!).
It should be no surprise that these movements are so easily restricted, and so quickly lose any zeal against the old order. But does that mean that liberal and bourgeois protests are to be avoided, or are of no value?
Of course not! To say that they are is to think that the only acceptable interactions to have as a socialist organiser are between other socialists and “the working class,” the nebulous term that By the bankrupting of liberalism and the bourgeoisie that pumps it full of life! That end is achieved through direct political struggle.
Two forms of struggle emerge: debating (arguing the limits of bourgeois democracy) and absorbing (agitating bourgeois reforms with greater energy, determination, and commitment so as to awaken the “revolutionary energy” of the proletariat, held in constant check by the nervous inconsistency of the bourgeoisie and reformists).
The second passage of Lenin’s, concerning political exposure, is from “What is To Be Done”:
“The consciousness– Lenin writes– of the working masses cannot be genuine class-consciousness, unless the workers learn, from concrete, and above all from topical, political facts and events to observe every other social class in all the manifestations of its intelectual, ethical, and political life; unless they learn to apply in practice the materialist analysis and the materialist estimate of all aspects of the life and activity of all classes, strata, and groups of the population.”
Here, Lenin highlights the latter form of political struggle. In developing familiarity with “all the manifestations” of bourgeois political activism, socialists are better prepared to agitate bourgeois reforms more effectively and from a socialist perspective. It is this engagement that on one hand bankrupts the intellectual base of bourgeois reforms while on the other hand creating two forms of credibility among socialist activists: a command of the material analysis of society, and in-the-flesh solidarity of confronting the bourgeoisie to take their own reforms to their proper conclusions. But not only this. But also to do so on a timetable convenient to the oppressed! Where the effect of liberal activism is spontaneity, the consequence of which is to tamper down the demands and energy of the working class, it is the role of socialist activists to do the opposite. It is our job to absorb the energy of these reformists by way of out-agitating them, and to transfer that energy to the working class to allow them to pursue “speedy and determined reform”, to pursue revolution. What is revolution– what is the dictatorship of the proletariat, if it is not the working class shaping the society’s demands, and determining on their own terms the scope and pace of the reforms which fulfil them?
Women’s liberation is not our issue to lose. It is our opportunity use improperly. It has already been absorbed and tamed. Soon, it will be put to rest. This is the way of the movements we’ve witnessed. Perhaps it is because we have tried to see the end goal in this next and ultimate wave of protests. We are supposed to use protests, but not bow before them. We are supposed to see them as the spontaneous outbursts of rage-politics meets feel-good activism that they are. Finally, we are supposed to carry that realisation to the conclusion that calling workers to this form of action is pointless. It is pointless because of the necessary limits placed on spontaneous protest. To corale workers into the streets with no clearly outlined set of demands, with no political direction, is as pointless as it is duplicitous. It is a lie to offer direction by way of directionlessness. Our job is to make a politically conscious class, prepared to carry out its interests as a class. Workers will not be prepared for that task with protests that are bound to be fruitless.We, however, are in no place to call the working classes into action from the sidelines, from the position of cynical isolation from the bourgeoisie. We can only do this through direct contact with “all manifestations” of the political life of “all classes”. That contact is the intellectual and political combat against the bourgeois/reformist reliance on spontaneity, and the edifying of the proletariat as a politically conscious class prepared to fight with a political vanguard prepared and qualified to lead them.
I close with a final rebuke from Lenin against the “Economists” of his day in “What Is to Be Done?”:
“Why do the Russian workers still manifest little revolutionary activity in response to the brutal treatment of the people by the police, the persecution of religious rects, the torture of soldiers, the persecution of the most innocent cultural undertakings, etc.? Is it because the “economic struggle” does not “stimulate” them to this, because it produces little that is “positive”? To adopt such an opinion, we repeat, is merely to direct the charge where it does not belong, to blame the working masses for one’s own philistinism (or Bernsteinism). We must blame ourselves, our lagging behind the mass movement, for still being unable to organise sufficiently wide, striking, and rapid exposures of all shameful outrages. When we do that (and we must and can do it), the most backwards worker will understand, or will feel, that the students and religious sects, the peasants and the authors are being abused and outraged by those same dark forces that are oppressing him at every step of his life.
…As for calling the masses to action, that will come of itself as soon as energetic political agitation, live and striking exposures come into play. To catch some criminal redhanded and immediately to brand him publicly in all places is of itself far more effective than any number of “calls”; the effect very often is such as will make it impossible to tell exactly who it was that “called” upon the masses and who suggested this or that plan of demonstration, etc. Calls for action, not in the general, but in the concrete, sense of the term can be made only at the place of action; only those who themselves go into action, and do so immediately, can sound such calls.”