THE RELATIONSHIP between spontaneity and organization has once more been raised by the genuinely earth-shaking events of the last year. For the past decade or longer, certainly since September 11, there has been relatively little resistance to what has been an almost continuous wave of ruling-class attacks. There have been incredibly inspiring events and moments of mass action—the massive immigrant rights protests of 2006, the march for LGBT equality in 2009—but these struggles have been largely isolated from one another and seemed to recede as quickly as they arose.
But in the last year, a tidal wave of resistance, coming seemingly out of nowhere, has swept across the world. First, Egypt, a country suffering under dictatorship for thirty years, was rocked by massive protests when a million people flooded into Tahrir Square and refused to leave for eighteen days until the regime fell. Thirty years—gone in eighteen days. Then, workers and students in Madison, Wisconsin, took over the Capitol building in protest of an all-out war on public-sector unions. Student protests erupted in Chile. And, in September of last year, a group of a few hundred activists took over a park in the shadow of Wall Street and managed to galvanize a mass movement that transformed the political debate in this country. The list could go on.
There is a popular image going around Facebook that has half a dozen pictures depicting a sea of humanity taking to the streets in different cities around the world and it’s captioned “The world is trying to tell us something this year: We are all one.” And there’s a truth to this; 2011 can easily be characterized as a year marked by an eruption of “spontaneous” struggle. Coming after years of retreat, these struggles were like a cleansing stream washing across the political landscape. After so much stagnation and demoralization, they opened up new possibilities, new ways of thinking. It became possible to conceive of an alternative to the way things are—a vital first step in beginning to change things. The mass of working-class people who had been written off as passive, as too tied down with their petty concerns, as apathetic, suddenly came to be seen as historical subjects, capable of heroic acts and self-sacrifice.
Particularly at the high points—when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak fell, holding the Capitol building in Madison, successfully defending Zuccotti Park in the early morning hours—there was a giddy quality to the events of the last year. Suddenly everything seemed possible. The poet Wordsworth’s words, written about the French Revolution, “bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” seemed utterly apt.
But if the last year has shown the massive potential that exists for ordinary people to transform society in their own interests, it has also shown the enormous reserves that exist on the other side. We may be able to topple a Mubarak, but it is quite another thing to dismantle the entire apparatus of wealth, privilege, and power that this system is built on—and an even further challenge to replace that system with one consciously built and directed by the vast majority in the interests of the vast majority.
We are just at the very beginning of a process; everywhere, these mass upheavals are facing real challenges about how to move forward. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker not only survived a recall election but trounced his Democratic Party opponent; in Egypt, while a full military coup has been avoided for the moment, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces still firmly retains control; and the Occupy movement has all but disappeared, despite the fact that the economic disparities and injustices that fueled it continue to mount.
This is a reality that we must confront directly, which is precisely why this question of the relationship between spontaneous struggle and organization is so important. There are many people who have drawn the conclusion from the events of the last year that the most significant and most important aspect was precisely that spontaneous nature—that is, that they were not called or organized by the existing trade union or Left organizations. There is a tendency to celebrate the absence of political parties, to be suspicious of any organized forces, and to argue that traditional forms of organization have been replaced by horizontal networks of activists who come together in common spaces and improvise their strategy and tactics.
The false idea that people are too selfish, bought off, or too apathetic to fight back has receded. But in its place, we have a new mythology: that the revolutionary energy and capacity of the masses is inexhaustible; that any obstacles thrown in our path can be and will be overcome by a return of large numbers to the streets and squares. While such revolutionary optimism is heartening and even understandable, it is not nearly sober enough, for in the last year we have also seen the limits of spontaneity. There was a slogan that Occupy Wall Street (OWS) produced in response to the eviction of Zuccotti Park: “You can’t evict an idea whose time has come.” It was a beautiful and defiant slogan. And there was a truth to it in the sense that the genie is out of the bottle and the ruling class cannot easily put the lid back on the class anger that has come into focus this year. But it is also the case that those ideas and that sentiment need to be translated into stronger organization and concrete actions if they are to continue to find expression and be able to win real gains.
The return of mass struggle over the last year is a welcome development. In fact, I would argue that it is a precondition for the rebuilding of a genuine Left. But it is just the beginning of the process. What I want to argue in this talk is that it is a mistake to counterpose spontaneity and organization. They are different aspects of the revolutionary process and they exist in a constant dialectical relationship with one another. Being able to grasp that relationship and the key tasks in any given moment is one of the greatest challenges revolutionaries face.
So, having spent time thus far talking about the role of spontaneous struggles, I think the first thing that has to be said is that there is no such thing as pure spontaneity. In a certain sense, this is a statement of obvious fact: someone, or some group of people, must and do call any action—even if these actions are relatively unorganized or emerge independently of other, and possibly larger, traditional forces. But there is more involved in this statement: as the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci put it, “every movement has elements of conscious leadership, of discipline.” Another way of putting this would be to say that there is no such thing as a leaderless movement. This is true whether the “leaders” acknowledge their role or not.
So, for example, Occupy Wall Street did not “spontaneously” decide to adopt consensus as its organizing model. There were leaders, individuals (some with decades of political experience), who consciously and deliberately argued for this process as opposed to others. Their proposals reflected a particular set of political ideas. There were individuals who, because of their experience and background, became the trainers for the facilitators and, as such, had a disproportionate impact on the shape and character of the general assemblies and the movement as a whole. For the moment, I am not commenting on whether this contribution was positive or negative; I am simply acknowledging it as a fact. It brings to mind Gramsci’s assertion that, “The fact that every ‘spontaneous’ movement contains rudimentary elements of conscious leadership, of discipline, is indirectly demonstrated by the fact that there exist tendencies and groups who extol spontaneity as a method.”
However, if we move away from the idea of “pure spontaneity,” in the sense of unplanned, unorganized, leaderless struggles, there are some very important respects in which we must understand spontaneity as a real phenomenon. In fact, in many ways, you can say that Karl Marx’s whole account of social change rests on its existence. Marxists argue that the conditions of capitalism and, in particular, its tendency to go into crisis guarantees that there will be resistance to it. But this does not happen in a predictable or ongoing way, but rather manifests in periodic explosions of struggle—the points at which the ongoing class struggle breaks into open conflict.
It is rarely if ever possible to predict the exact time, location, and trigger that will set off such a mass upheaval. Often, even the organizers of the events that lead to such explosions are surprised by how quickly events take off. And it is never the case that an explosion is the result of oppositional forces gradually building their strength until the point where they are able to summon mass numbers into the street behind their banner. In fact, attempts that may fail in one instance can be wildly successful in another due to factors far beyond the control of the organized forces or individuals involved.
To take an example very close to my experience, we can look at the dramatic rise of Occupy Wall Street. Three months before OWS, there was a similar encampment at City Hall, called Bloombergville. The first nights of each encampment were very similar: a festival atmosphere, complete with drum circles; somewhere between one and two hundred people; a mix of socialists, anarchists, trade unionists, unaffiliated students, and young people; an open-air general assembly to discuss plans and goals; and a legal, but open and defiant, encampment at the steps of the power elites. And yet, within a week of Bloombergville it was clear that, despite pledges of support, the unions were not going to mobilize or join and that new people were not getting involved. Important connections were formed, a core of organizers began to develop, and precedents were set, but the struggle itself did not take off. The encampment shut down a couple of weeks after beginning and the budget cuts went through. By contrast, within a week of the encampment at Zuccotti, OWS had become a mass movement drawing thousands of people into the struggle and capturing national attention.
The difference between the two was neither that the organizers somehow managed to amass a few thousand more supporters through patient organizing, nor was it that they invented some brilliant new tactic that broke through people’s passivity or fear. Though certainly, the target of Wall Street was an important difference that provided an opportunity for it to become a national rather than local focal point. But primarily the difference lay in a series of conjunctional factors that allowed OWS to act as a spark for all the accumulated bitterness that has been seething just under the surface of US society. It is well beyond the scope of this talk to try to explain what those were. The point is that they were unpredictable, largely uncontrollable, and that once set in motion the movement had an explosive, spontaneous dynamic that meant that it opened up new possibilities and challenges that the organizers could not have anticipated or prepared for in advance. We saw a similar, though much more greatly accentuated, dynamic in Egypt when activists organized the usual demonstration for police day and set off a revolutionary process on January 25, 2011.
How do we explain this? How can we explain why it is that seemingly fruitless struggles, small demonstrations of hundreds, years of patient organizing work, suddenly give way to stormy rebellion, to examples of mass creativity and initiative, and countless acts of individual and collective heroism. This has to do with the ways in which capitalism operates to maintain a relative stability and what Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky referred to as the “psychology of the masses.” While Marx was right to describe history as a “history of class struggles, now open, now hidden,” it is also the case that this conflict must somehow be controlled and mediated. For the ruling class this is necessary in order to maintain some degree of social stability; for the working class and oppressed, it would be impossible, indeed intolerable to live in a state of constant revolt against the existing order.
And so, for most of the people most of the time, discontent or opposition is contained; people attempt to channel or deflect their frustration by the means made available to them under existing conditions. But the contradictions and injustices of our system sew themselves into the fabric of the collective unconscious; they accumulate; and at a certain point they become no longer tolerable. A crack pried open in the edifice of the system becomes a yawning chasm that opens up to the widest horizons. It is this which gives struggle its explosive, dramatic quality.
Trotsky describes this revolutionary dynamic in his History of the Russian Revolution, and I believe it is worth quoting in full:
The dynamic of revolutionary events is directly determined by swift, intense and passionate changes in the psychology of classes, which have already formed themselves before the revolution....
The point is that society does not change its institutions as need arises, the way a mechanic changes his instruments. On the contrary, society actually takes the institutions which hang upon it as given once for all. For decades the oppositional criticism is nothing more than a safety valve for mass dissatisfaction, a condition of the stability of the social structure. Entirely exceptional conditions, independent of the will of persons and parties, are necessary in order to tear off from discontent the fetters of conservatism, and bring the masses to insurrection.
The swift changes of mass views and moods in an epoch of revolution thus derive, not from the flexibility and mobility of man’s mind, but just the opposite, from its deep conservatism. The chronic lag of ideas and relations behind new objective conditions, right up to the moment when the latter crash over people in the form of a catastrophe, is what creates in a period of revolution that leaping movement of ideas and passions which seems to the police mind a mere result of the activities of “demagogues” (emphasis added).
Rosa Luxemburg makes a similar point in her description of the mass strike movement in Russia. Describing the first outbreak of strikes, she wrote:
But this first general direct action reacted inwardly all the more powerfully as it for the first time awoke class feeling and class-consciousness in millions upon millions as if by an electric shock. And this awakening of class feeling expressed itself forthwith in the circumstances that the proletarian mass, counted by millions, quite suddenly and sharply came to realize how intolerable was that social and economic existence which they had patiently endured for decades in the chains of capitalism. Thereupon, there began a spontaneous general shaking of and tugging at these chains. All the innumerable sufferings of the modern proletariat reminded them of the old bleeding wounds.
This process cannot, as Luxemburg put it, be set by simply picking a date on the calendar. It cannot be dictated by an organization. And it cannot be called forth by a particular set of tactics, no matter how brilliant or creative.
This does not mean that there is nothing to be done in the absence of mass upheavals—that we simply fold our arms and wait for people to spontaneously revolt. If we were able to translate the tempo of struggle into a visual image and then look at it from a distance, it would appear as a long, more or less flat line with sudden, sharp upwards curves. In other words, we would see history as long periods of calm punctuated by massive eruptions of struggle. But if you come closer, you can see that there is a constant process taking place: there are small struggles, often ending in defeat, but also some small victories; discussions begin to develop between networks of activists and organizers; organizations come into being, often collapsing, giving way to new organizations. In a certain sense, there is ceaseless activity.
When you are in the midst of this activity, it can be hard to fully grasp what it all means. This is not a political or intellectual failure on the part of the participants. Instead, it is a reflection of the fact that all these elements, which are forming through a particular activity, only really assemble and assume more definite form when the struggle emerges on a higher level. Nonetheless, the organizing that is done in these periods of calm is critical. In ways both big and small, the character of the mass struggles that emerge is shaped by what comes before.
Out of a whole series of smaller battles, elements of leadership begin to form, different politics begin to emerge, and certain tactics, symbols, and themes begin to develop that assume a resonance. Connections are formed, are sometimes lost, but then reemerge as struggle begins to develop at a sharper level. At the most basic level, there are individuals who develop some experience and politics, who learn lessons from them and are able to give a lead to those around them.
In an article titled the “Leninist Theory of Organization,” socialist Ernest Mandel vividly makes this point:
Scratch off the blue coat of an ostensibly “spontaneous movement” and you will find the unmistakable residue of a bright red veneer. Here a member of a “vanguard” group who set off a “spontaneous” strike. There a former member of another “left-deviationist” affiliation, who has long since left it but who received sufficient mental equipment to be able, in an explosive situation, to react with lightning speed while the anonymous mass was still hesitating.
In one case, we will be able to detect in “spontaneous” action the fruits of years of “underground activity” by a trade-union opposition, or a rank-and-file group; in another case, the result of contacts that, for a rather long period of time, have patiently—and without apparent success—been nurtured by shop colleagues in a neighbouring city (or a neighbouring factory) where the “left-wingers” are stronger. In the class struggle too there is no such thing as a goose “spontaneously” falling from heaven already cooked.
We can look at any of the examples of spontaneous mass struggle that I gave earlier and identify these elements of leadership and the smaller struggles that helped set the stage and give shape to these eruptions. In Egypt, the revolution that seemed to come out of nowhere was actually preceded by six years of a significant rise in struggle. Both the democracy movement on the one hand and a growing movement of strikes on the other helped to bring together activists, break through previous political taboos, and set the stage for greater organizing.
At the heart of the incredible student strike movement in Quebec are organizations that have been preparing for this moment for forty years. At the core of the planning for Occupy Wall Street there were labor, community, and left-wing activists who had worked together in the fight against the budget cuts since 2008.
At the same time, in a bigger sense, we have to understand that the upheavals we are witnessing today are shaped by the context of the last thirty-five years. These were years in which the working class was in retreat, the level of class struggle was low, and we saw more defeats than victories. It was also a period in which we saw the ascendancy of neoliberalism, an economic model that ideologically elevated an individualistic ethos over collective action.
And, critically, the collapse of Stalinism—while helping to clear the path to a rediscovery of an authentic tradition of socialism from below—means that the revolutionary Left is quite weak. All of this helps to explain the prevalence of more anarchist ideas and the suspicion of organization and political parties at this stage of the movement.
However, one of the features of mass upheavals is that they bring together these previous elements with new forces. They simultaneously pose new questions—questions that could not have been asked before—opening up new possibilities. The organizations and networks of militants that have been built in advance of such upheavals are critically important, but must themselves rise to new possibilities and attempt to give a lead to them.
These mass upheavals represent a decisive new stage in the struggle; they are the unconscious coming into action. As Luxemburg beautifully puts it: “The unconscious comes before the conscious. The logic of the historic process comes before the subjective logic of the human beings who participate in the historic process.” Far from rendering organization meaningless, such spontaneous struggles make it all the more important: they mark the beginning of a process by which the majority of working-class people can become conscious of their situation, of the whole range of forces arrayed against them, of their collective power, and can achieve the fighting unity of their ranks and the collective discipline which makes their conquest of power possible. This is the process by which a class transforms itself, in Marx’s words, from a class in itself to a class for itself. As Lenin put it, spontaneity is “essentially nothing other than the germinal form of consciousness.”
There exists between spontaneity, organization, and this developing consciousness a dialectical and reciprocal relationship; all aspects of this relationship must be grasped in their totality.
When spontaneous struggles break out they open up previously unseen horizons and bring out the latent energy, creativity, and talents of ordinary people. We were able to witness this process during the Egyptian revolution, where literally hundreds of thousands of people began not only to participate in political life but to face the greatest political challenges. When the regime attempted to crush the revolution in the “Battle of the Camels,” people responded with incredible strength, creating makeshift barricades, clinics, checkpoints, and more—improvisation was the order of the day.
I experienced this personally with the dramatic rise of Occupy Wall Street. In very short order, the movement grew well beyond those who had initiated it; working groups proliferated by the day, different groups of individuals organized themselves to press their demands, people took the idea of “occupy” and applied it in diverse and creative ways to their own situation. I’ll never forget the October 15 day of action in Times Square—it was a demonstration that never had a single flyer produced to publicize it, and yet 100,000 people streamed into the demo defying all expectations.
These are the elemental upsurges of a class set in motion. This is the lifeblood of any vision of revolutionary change without which revolutionary theory becomes sterile and paralyzed. This is why the idea that organized revolutionaries would be suspicious or fearful of spontaneous struggles erupting is so laughable; this is what we live for. What spontaneous struggle does do is raise the question of organization to a higher plane; it increases the need for politics and organization. This is something that people instinctively understand. In the Mass Strike, Rosa Luxemburg describes how struggle gives way to new organizing initiatives: “the apparently ‘chaotic’ strikes and the ‘disorganised’ revolutionary action after the January general strike are becoming the starting point of a feverish work of organisation.”
New ideas are introduced—ideas that must be developed, clarified, and crystallized in organizational form. Again, Rosa Luxemburg makes the point that “the most precious, lasting thing in the rapid ebb and flow of the wave is its mental sediment: the intellectual, cultural growth of the proletariat, which proceeds by fits and starts.” As this quote implies, there is nothing automatic or linear in this process. As people begin to move into open conflict with the existing system, new questions are raised. The job of revolutionaries is to not lag behind events. Luxemburg describes how organized revolutionaries must constantly attempt to raise the struggle to a higher stage:
In every phase and every aspect of the struggle the total sum of the available power of the proletariat that has already been unleashed should be mobilized and it should be expressed in the fighting stance of the Party. The tactics of Social Democracy should always be more resolute and vigorous than required by the existing power relations, and never less.
Lenin expresses a similar idea in his pamphlet, What Is To Be Done?
The crux of the matter is, how is one to understand the statement that the mass working class movement will “determine the tasks”? It may be interpreted in one of two ways. Either it means bowing to the spontaneity of this movement, or it means that the mass movement places before us new theoretical, political, and organizational tasks, far more complicated than those that might have satisfied us in the period before the rise of the mass movement.
It probably goes without saying that he would argue for the latter interpretation. But why is it not enough to say that the mass movement will itself determine—and even solve—the tasks? Why is such conscious intervention necessary? This has to do with the dynamics of revolution, which must be seen not as a single event but as a process. Trotsky describes this dynamic beautifully:
The masses go into a revolution not with a prepared plan of social reconstruction, but with a sharp feeling that they cannot endure the old régime. Only the guiding layers of a class have a political program, and even this still requires the test of events, and the approval of the masses. The fundamental political process of the revolution thus consists in the gradual comprehension by a class of the problems arising from the social crisis—the active orientation of the masses by a method of successive approximations.
When large numbers of people move into action, it is not only those who have been struggling for so long who are initially surprised. Even more so are the rulers caught unawares, because, unlike revolutionaries who fully expect and prepare for such upheavals, the ruling class has convinced itself that such resistance is impossible. In this situation, the ruling classes can be shaken, destabilized and placed on the defensive. At the same time, and in a reciprocal relationship, the suddenly mobilized masses draw strength and confidence and can advance quite quickly. There is a sense of unity and momentum that can, at least temporarily, paper over underlying contradictions within the movement.
This is often what characterizes what Marx called “the beautiful revolution” —those first moments of a revolution that seem to unite the majority of society in a struggle against the old order. This was what we saw very dramatically when Mubarak fell—for at least a moment it seemed that the whole society was united behind a simple slogan, “the people want the fall of the regime.” The sense of unity was expressed in the other dominant slogan of that phase of the revolution, “The people and the army are one.” But, as we have all seen, the old order does not give up so easily. Once it has regained its confidence, it begins to maneuver, to figure out how to adapt, perhaps utilizing “reform from above” to stave off further threats to its position. It seeks allies among those who have some kind of credibility with the masses, and always, lying in wait, is the desire to openly roll back all gains made by the struggle if the ruling classes can find the opportunity.
At the same time, a process of differentiation inevitably begins to take place within the opposition camp. Some individuals, as soon as the initial revolutionary wave begins to ebb, retreat back into the habits and routines of the past; others become active, but move initially into reformist organizations such as the unions, reformist parties, or existing opposition forces; still others become convinced of the need for a thoroughgoing revolutionary transformation. To say that the working class spontaneously gravitates toward revolutionary socialist politics is true only in the most general sense. As Lenin put it, “socialist theory reveals the causes of the misery of the working class more profoundly and more correctly than any other theory, and for that reason the workers are able to assimilate it so easily.”
However, people’s ideas do not develop in a vacuum; they are shaped and influenced by the prevailing conditions and by the alternatives on offer. There is a wonderful story in John Reed’s magnificent account of the Russian revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World, where he describes an encounter between a Bolshevik soldier and a student who proclaims himself a Marxist but is opposed to the revolution. It’s so wonderful that I’m going to quote the passage in full:
“You realize, I presume,” he said insolently, “that by taking up arms against your brothers you are making yourselves the tools of murderers and traitors?”
“Now brother,” answered the soldier earnestly, “you don’t understand. There are two classes, don’t you see, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. We——”
“Oh, I know that silly talk!” broke in the student rudely. “A bunch of ignorant peasants like you hear somebody bawling a few catch words. You don’t understand what they mean. You just echo them like a lot of parrots.” The crowd laughed. “I’m a Marxian student. And I tell you that this isn’t Socialism you are fighting for. It’s just plain pro-German anarchy!”
“Oh, yes, I know,” answered the soldier, with sweat dripping from his brow. “You are an educated man, that is easy to see, and I am only a simple man. But it seems to me——”
“I suppose,” interrupted the other contemptuously, “that you believe Lenin is a real friend of the proletariat?”
“Yes, I do,” answered the soldier, suffering.
“Well, my friend, do you know that Lenin was sent through Germany in a closed car? Do you know that Lenin took money from the Germans?”
“Well, I don’t know much about that,” answered the soldier stubbornly, “but it seems to me that what he says is what I want to hear, and all the simple men like me. Now there are two classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat——”
“You are a fool! Why, my friend, I spent two years in Schlüsselburg for revolutionary activity, when you were still shooting down revolutionists and singing ‘God Save the Tsar!’ My name is Vasili Georgevitch Panyin. Didn’t you ever hear of me?”
“I’m sorry to say I never did,” answered the soldier with humility. “But then, I am not an educated man. You are probably a great hero.”
“I am,” said the student with conviction. “And I am opposed to the Bolsheviki, who are destroying our Russia, our free Revolution. Now how do you account for that?”
The soldier scratched his head. “I can’t account for it at all,” he said, grimacing with the pain of his intellectual processes. “To me it seems perfectly simple—but then, I’m not well educated. It seems like there are only two classes, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie——”
“There you go again with your silly formula!” cried the student.
“——only two classes,” went on the soldier, doggedly.
And whoever isn’t on one side is on the other. . .”
I’ve always loved this story because it expresses a simple and clarifying truth: there are two great classes, and if you’re not on one side, you’re on the other. However, the class struggle rarely organizes itself in such a way that the rulers of the existing order and their hangers-on line themselves up on one side with the working class and oppressed on the other. If it did, spontaneous struggle probably would be enough and revolution would be a relatively simple matter. In reality, bourgeois, or ruling-class, ideology asserts itself in a diversity of ways and is mediated through a range of institutions, many of which grow up out of struggle itself, but are committed to operating within the framework of the existing system. Examples of such institutions are trade unions, reformist, and other opposition parties.
This ability of bourgeois ideology to appear not simply as a hostile force in opposition to the working class, but from within working-class organizations is what led Lenin to argue, “The working class spontaneously gravitates towards socialism; nevertheless, most widespread (and continuously and diversely revived) bourgeois ideology spontaneously imposes itself upon the working class to a still greater degree.” Far from sweeping away these institutions, a new revolutionary upsurge tends to bring new layers into their ranks. This was Luxemburg’s weakness. As a member of the premier example of such an organization, the German Social Democratic Party, she looked to spontaneous struggle to overcome the conservatism of the trade unions and reformist parties. She wrote, “[L]eaders who hang back will certainly be pushed aside by the storming masses.”
Unfortunately, painful experience has proven this view is false; in fact, such organizations are often the first beneficiary of struggle. The reason goes back to Trotsky’s point that in struggle people’s actions leap ahead of their ideas. In the first instance, the vast majority of people will look to those organizations and institutions that have played or seemed to play an oppositional role within the system. They will gravitate toward those who offer what seems the most peaceful, most expedient, means of satisfying their immediate demands. So, for example, in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood was the primary beneficiary of the revolutionary upsurge because they had built roots and influence over decades as an opposition group within the existing system. This despite the fact that they neither initiated nor led that upsurge, and that their politics not only don’t reflect the aspirations or class interests of the mass of Egyptians, but are, in fact, directly opposed to them.
The ruling class will attempt to use such organizations and institutions to reassert their control and to channel discontent back into the existing system. We saw this on a small scale with the struggle against Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. People moved into struggle quite quickly and the level of self-organization and initiative was truly inspiring. But the unions were the most organized force capable of giving a “lead” to the struggle, and they led it back out of direct confrontation and into a recall election. They demobilized people and put the struggle back on the terrain that most favors the ruling class and away from that terrain on which the working class draws it strength. The forces of the Left were simply not strong enough or developed enough to pose an effective alternative leadership.
In Egypt, the revolution was driven not simply by a hatred of dictatorship but also by the extreme class antagonisms created by that dictatorship; and yet, the military council and Brotherhood-controlled parliament have repeatedly been able to appeal successfully for national unity and a defense of the revolution on the basis that working-class demands are “narrow” and “sectional.” This is why while we can speak of and indeed welcome eruptions of spontaneous mass struggle, it makes no sense to speak of spontaneity as a method or a strategy. In practice, this means to cede political leadership to opposing class forces. In reality, spontaneous struggles represent a starting point from which masses of people begin the process of becoming conscious of their own interests and power. But this is not a linear process and it is one in which the ruling class actively intervenes and fights to defend its interests, utilizing all means at its disposal.
It is also not a static process. Existing organizations are tested. The struggle is fluid as people attempt different strategies, learn lessons, retreat, and then push forward again looking for organizations and alternatives that reflect their deepest aspirations. But none of this happens automatically. Existing organizations may be tested and found wanting, but this does not mean that people then adopt new, more radical slogans, methods, and organizations. If a credible alternative does not exist, it is equally possible for people to retreat into apathy or despair. The job of a revolutionary organization is to base itself on the mass spontaneous upsurge, to merge with it, to develop its best aspects, and out of that to develop a conscious understanding of the aspirations implicit in those actions and crystallize them into organizations that can provide a concrete alternative as people begin to make sense of their world and their place in it.
This is the real meaning of Lenin’s statement that “the fact that the masses are spontaneously entering the movement does not make the organization of this struggle less necessary. On the contrary, it makes it more necessary.”
And so, I want to come back to our Bolshevik soldier: what appears as a simple statement—there are two classes and if you are not on one side you are on the other—is actually a theoretical and organizational achievement of the highest order. This soldier’s confidence and clarity, expressed three days after the October Revolution, represented the ability of the Bolshevik Party through a period of struggle and patient argument to counter all attempts to bring the revolutionary impulses of the mass of the Russian people back into the framework of the existing order. They were able to offer an alternative framework based on working-class self-activity and win the majority of the working class to a conscious understanding of itself as the leadership of all the exploited, oppressed, and dispossessed.
It is an understanding that was hard-won, based on the truths learned out of its own bitter experience; but it was not possible without a party that based itself in the spontaneous struggles of workers while simultaneously and at every point trying to give conscious expression to the deep aspirations that are implicit in such struggles. The Hungarian socialist Georg Lukàcs put it very succinctly and eloquently: “The party must immerse its own truth in the spontaneous mass movement and raise it from the depths of economic necessity, where it was conceived, on to the heights of free, conscious action. In so doing, it will transform itself in the moment of the outbreak of revolution from a party that makes demands to one that imposes an effective reality.”
And this really is the question. Whether people will resist, whether they will spontaneously struggle, whether they are capable of vast acts of heroism, sacrifice, and creative innovation are not at question. Even if a generation had lost sight of these possibilities, the events of the last year have brought them back to the forefront of our attention. The question is whether we can pose an effective reality—whether substantial working-class organization, rooted in these struggles and conscious of its own aims and an understanding of the forces arrayed against it, can successfully contend for power. The struggles we have witnessed have posed the question of such power, but it is one that remains to be answered. For those of us who want to go beyond challenging an unjust and barbaric system to replacing it with one based on the solidarity, creativity, and all the human potential we have been privileged to witness in the last year, this is the task. It is by no means easy or guaranteed, but it is the only way forward.
Suggestions for further reading:
Lars T. Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done? In Context (Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2008).
Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution (Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2007).
John Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World (New York: Penguin Classics, 2007); http://www.marxists.org/archive/reed/191....
Duncan Hallas, Towards a Revolutionary Socialist Party in Tony Cliff, Duncan Hallas, et. al, Party and Class (Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2003); http://www.marxists.org/archive/hallas/w....
Leon Trotsky, The Class, the Party, and the Leadership in Tony Cliff, Duncan Hallas, et. al, Party and Class (Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2003); http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/....
Rosa Luxemburg, The Essential Rosa Luxemburg: Reform or Revolution and The Mass Strike (Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2006); http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxembur....
George Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness, "The Marxism of Rosa Luxemburg," http://www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/w....
Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York: International Publishers, 1971).
Ernest Mandel, "The Leninist theory of organization," http://www.marxists.org/archive/mandel/1....