LAST SPRING, Left Turn magazine published an article by Matthew Birkhold, a Brooklyn-based writer and activist, entitled “Living by the Clock of the World: Grace Lee Boggs’ Call for Visionary Organizing.” The article is an attempt to “clarify” a quote from an interview with Grace Lee Boggs, in which the ninety-six-year-old movement veteran argues that young activists today should “Turn [their] back on protest organizing” because it leads them into “defensive operations.” Instead, Boggs argues, activists should practice “visionary” organizing which “gives you the opportunity to encourage the creative capacity in people.” The interview caused a small stir. At a time when movements from Egypt to the United States were putting mass struggle back on the agenda, why would anyone argue against it? “Fans of Grace,” commented Birkhold, treated her argument as “common sense,” while others felt like her position “bordered on conservatism.”
In Boggs’s vocabulary, what most activists engage in—protests, marches, demonstrations and the like—is “rebellion.” Rebellions are moments of protest that attack the legitimacy of society’s dominant institutions. Rebellions, however, “cannot lead to the reorganization of society” because people still “see themselves as victims. . .and the other side as villains.” “Revolutions,” on the other hand, project a new “notion of a more human human being” and “create societies more conducive to human development.”
So-called “visionary” (or sometimes “transformative”) organizing is therefore a “revolutionary” strategy which seeks to break people from “the bourgeois method of thought on which US capitalism is based” by developing alternative institutions and communities—such as community gardens, small businesses, and free schools—that facilitate doing “the work of re-imagining ourselves” and helping us “think beyond capitalist categories.”
What both Boggs and Birkhold don’t see, however, is that collective action cannot be separated from the process of creating a new society or transforming people’s consciousness—they are part of the same process of revolutionizing society. It is not simply that ideas change the world; it is changing the world that transforms our ideas. People do not simply “reimagine” themselves. The transformation of consciousness is rooted in mass struggle—demonstrations, strikes, etc.—that have the potential to raise people’s expectations, sense of solidarity, and their confidence as agents of historical change. To lead activists away from collective action (or to mechanically separate it from the actual process of reorganizing society) is to lead people away from the manner by which the working class and the oppressed develop revolutionary consciousness, and learn in the process to democratically rule society themselves.
The historical development of “visionary organizing”
According to Birkhold, the idea of “visionary organizing” has grown from the Boggses’ “dialectical” analysis of US history. Beginning with the American revolution, a contradiction was “initiated” in the United States “between economic development and political underdevelopment,” i.e., between economic self-interest and social responsibility. This is the “fundamental” contradiction in US society. Since then, every social movement in American history has been “incorporated into the capitalist system because they have all ended up internalizing capitalist values.”
It is useful to examine, for a moment, the context out of which so-called “visionary organizing” emerged fully-fledged—in the aftermath of the defeats of the mass movements of the 1960–1970s. These movements, in which the Boggses were deeply involved, raised the political aspirations of millions of people across the world, and put the possibility of social revolution back on the agenda, after the degeneration of the Soviet Union had led many into despair. Detroit, where Grace Lee Boggs has lived and been active since the end of World War II, was a major epicenter of the Black rebellion that fueled the protests of the era. Detroit was the location not only of one the most violent and intense urban rebellions against racism in US history, but also of the wildcat strikes led by the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), which represented one of the most militant expressions of the Black power movement. DRUM’s actions initiated a period of renewed union militancy across the country.
The ruling class initiated a drastic and brutal counterattack to crush this revolutionary tremor. Violence was used with increasing frequency to crush protests and rebellions in the United States and across the world. Blacks experienced the most severe punishment for their resistance. Beginning with President Richard Nixon’s push for “law and order,” to the War on Drugs and the “get tough on crime laws” of the 1990s, “a new system of racialized social control” was created through mass incarceration, police brutality, and discrimination in housing, employment, and education, “by exploiting the vulnerabilities and racial resentments of poor and working class whites” in a system some have begun to call “the new Jim Crow.”
Faced with such profound reaction and demobilization of the radical movements after a period in which revolution seemed possible, many on the Left fell into disorientation, in-fighting, pessimism, and confusion. Most gave up on revolution altogether. Others, militant, passionate and fueled by a sense of desperation, chased after revolution with bombs and guns.
So-called “visionary organizing” emerged out of this period of torpor that followed the defeats of the movements of the 1960–1970s, a period virtually unprecedented in US history; it reflected a retreat into the pessimism and voluntarism that resulted from those defeats. In spite of Grace Boggs’s sincere appeal for “hope,” at the center of her analysis of US history is a cynical dismissal of the revolutionary potential of the working class and the oppressed in the United States—often even viewing them as hopelessly reactionary, driven into apathy by consumerism. Rather than seeing the collective action of the working class and oppressed as a source of energy, creativity, and transformative power, these groups have become “incorporated into the capitalist system.” The movements are seen by Boggs as cries of victimization and economic self-interest, rather than struggles against oppression with the potential of creating a better world.
In the Boggses’ analysis, the economic boom that followed the end of World War II spurred, to quote Birkhold, “the conditions for mass consumption which allowed everyday working people to consume at unprecedented rates.” These conditions gave working-class people a stake in the system and eliminated the revolutionary potential of the US working class. By 1967 James Boggs had concluded that the working class could no longer be revolutionary:
Isn’t it obvious that the working classes of Europe and America are like the petty bourgeoisie of Marx’s time and that they collaborate with the power structure and support the system because their high standard of living depends upon the continuation of this power structure and this system?
The Boggses concluded that revolution in the United States had to be rethought, and that “socialism in the US meant putting political and social responsibility in command of economics.” Because the growing Black movement “almost universally prioritized the question of what it meant to be a human being over economic demands in the 50s and 60s,” Blacks became the new revolutionary social force. However, after the state and the ruling class made a series of concessions to the movement following the widespread urban rebellions of the 1960s, the Black movement also became “incorporated” into the capitalist system. In 1974, James Boggs wrote,
The reality, the very sad reality today is that most of our young people have no basis for making decisions except their own momentary feelings, their own immediate selfish interests or their desire not to be unpopular with their peers. Everyday more black youth are becoming more individualistic, more pleasure-seeking, more unable to tell the difference between correct and incorrect ideas and principles.
They concluded that the material prosperity of the United States, “where more is stolen in the ghettos everyday than is produced in most African countries during an entire year” as James Boggs put it, along with its expansive military empire, created the conditions where the working class and the oppressed in the United States were able to “advance themselves economically” at the expense of the Global South, creating an “unintentional economic stake in maintaining US hegemony.” Because these economic and technological advancements have become “a danger to the physical survival of the rest of the world,” making demands for “more things”—such as higher wages, better job security, or increased access to healthcare, jobs for the unemployed, etc.—has become a “fetter on revolutionary development.” Therefore, “the revolution to be made in the United States will be the first revolution in history to require the masses to make material sacrifices rather than to acquire more things.”
Mass struggle, argued the Boggses, could no longer create the kind of change society needed. By 1978 James Boggs was arguing that
There was no point in trying to mobilize or organize Americans for a revolution against the capitalists as long as the great majority of Americans are still dominated by the same capitalist vision of material and scientific expansion, struggling only to get for themselves material goods that other Americans have. If by some miracle, tomorrow or in the near future, the oppressed in American society were able to take power away from the American capitalists without having overcome our own individualism and materialism, the New America would not be any different from the old.
Therefore, “each of us needs to undergo a tremendous philosophical and spiritual transformation,” in which “we see ourselves not mainly as victims but as new men and women.” Hence, while the various struggles of workers, women, people of color, and LGBT people have helped “to humanize our society overall,” they also contain
a shadow side in the sense that they have encouraged us to think of ourselves more as determined than as self-determining, more as victims of “isms” (racism, sexism, capitalism, ableism) than as human beings who have the power of choice. . .. [I]t becomes clearer every day that organizing or joining massive protests and demanding new policies fail to sufficiently address the crisis we face. They may demonstrate that we are on the right side politically, but they are not transformative enough. They do not change the cultural images or the symbols that play such a pivotal role in molding us into who we are.
Running in circles: idealism versus materialism revisited
“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” —Carl Sagan
As previously established, Birkhold and Boggs view the “primary” contradiction in the United States to be between its economic and technological “overdevelopment” and the “underdevelopment” of people’s social and political responsibility. Boggs and Birkhold call this “dialectical humanism,” to distinguish it from the “dialectical materialism” of Marxism. According to Birkhold,
While racism, sexism, and poverty are important contradictions, they can be explained as a consequence of the tendency of Americans to prioritize economic development and individual gain over political and social responsibility. Having become more politically inhumane the more technology advances, Americans have become “a people who have been psychologically and morally damaged by the unlimited opportunities to pursue material happiness provided by the cancerous growth of the productive forces.”
But this analysis explains nothing. First, how are “economic interests” defined? No distinction is made, for instance, between the “economic interests” or “social responsibility” of different classes, which makes it impossible to concretely define either of these categories from the outset, making them useless for any historical or social analysis. Is a worker who is struggling to shorten the working day, to form a union, or earn a living wage pursuing her “economic interests” or pursuing “social responsibility”? Were early American slave rebellions in pursuit of slaves’ “economic interests” or in pursuit of “social responsibility”? The answer is obviously that they pursued both. In both of these cases, the economic interests of capitalists and slave owners are mutually exclusive from those of the workers and slaves. But according to Boggs, individuals are unable to simultaneously pursue both their economic interests and social responsibility.
“Social responsibility,” moreover, is a vague moral and ahistorical concept that can be filled with any content one likes. Placing this in the center of one’s historical analysis inevitably leads one down the path of metaphysics or biological determinism, since it can no longer be explained historically, but only by recourse to a spiritually or biologically eternal human nature. The solution for those who want to create a better world is either to discover this eternal spiritual truth—a foredoomed practice in metaphysics and theology—or to permanently change human biology, which is impossible. That Grace Boggs falls into this trap is evidenced by her consistent references to creating a “more human human” or to our “moral damage.” Although she doesn’t say it explicitly, it seems for Boggs that there must be an abstract human or supreme moral subject from which we have been corrupted, e.g., God, a Holy Spirit, etc., which we must strive to emulate (to “grow our souls”) in order to create the better society. What society has really needed this whole time is a messiah who has grasped this eternal truth.
It is clear, therefore, that far from being a new form of “activism for the twenty-first century,” this approach to social change is quite old and familiar—even ancient. In fact, the first people to call themselves “socialists” were those, sincerely motivated by the devastation caused by the birth pangs of capitalism, who sought to solve society’s problems through forming intricately planned communities throughout Europe and North America, not unlike what Boggs and Birkhold propose today. Their critics called these early socialists “utopians” for drawing up elaborately detailed outlines of hypothetical future societies. All manner of different projects were laid out to relieve society of its suffering, including the formation of the cooperative workplaces and agrarian communes. From here, all that was needed was to convince people—especially rich people and politicians who had the requisite financial resources—to implement the ideas (which isn’t entirely unlike writing grant applications today).
Robert Owen was one of the most successful of these early socialists. While most utopian projects were unable to get started for lack of funds, as a former industrialist Owen had access to his own money to initiate his projects. At first he was celebrated by the rich and powerful as a great philanthropist. All of his communes failed within a matter of years, either because of internal strife within the projects, or external pressure caused by land speculation, lack of financing, or political pressure. Eventually he ran out of his own money, and, having become isolated from his former business partners, turned toward the working class as a base of support. He became well known as a passionate supporter of the early trade union and cooperative movements.
The utopian socialists were some of the earliest and most thorough critics of the emergent capitalist society. The German philosopher and cofounder of revolutionary socialism Frederick Engels praised the utopian thinker Charles Fourier, for instance, as “the first to declare that in any given society the degree of women’s emancipation is the natural measure of the general emancipation.” Likewise, Robert Owen’s work with cooperative workplaces gave “practical proof that the merchant and the manufacturer are socially quite unnecessary.”
But while these early utopian thinkers were widely celebrated for their novel criticism, many of their descendants were bitterly sectarian and reactionary. As the advance of capitalist society gave rise to the formation of unions and working-class struggle, the later utopians were hostile to “all political action on the part of the working class; such action, according to them, can only result from blind unbelief in the new gospel.” To the utopians, political and economic struggle was viewed as a diversion from the real treatment of social problems—the formation of alternative communities. One later utopian thinker, Étienne Cabet, is reported to have said, “If he held a revolution in the palm of his hand he would close his fingers over it and never open them again.”
Like the utopians, Boggs and Birkhold mistakenly conclude that capitalism is a system founded on “bourgeois methods of thought,” rather than being rooted in real, concrete social practices. Rather than recognizing that consciousness is itself a product of our society, they see ideas as shaped independently of the practical world. To Boggs, capitalist exploitation, environmental degradation, and racism are all products of “values.”
But capitalism cannot be reduced to a set of moral values. It is not founded on thoughts or ideas, but on the way society actually produces and reproduces its own existence. Capitalism didn’t develop out of the human brain, but out of the material conditions of past societies before it. As it evolved from these past conditions, it violently forced its way through the barriers of the old world, and gave birth to a new one. As it matured, new ideas developed that corresponded to changing social and political realities. The historic revolutions of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as those in North America and France, were outcomes of the political maturing of this emergent capitalist society.
Capitalism is a system in which greed and selfishness prevail, but greed is a product rather than a cause of capitalism. To paraphrase Voltaire, “If greed did not exist, it would be necessary for capitalism to invent it.” The central drive of capitalism is profit. Those capitalists who are not profitable risk losing their class position, as their firms fail or are consumed by their larger, more aggressive competitors. All production under capitalism is based on generating profit instead of satisfying social needs. All capitalists are inevitably disciplined to obey the laws of market competition, regardless of an individual capitalist’s temperament. In order to generate profit, capitalists purchase labor power for less than the value of the commodities they produce with their labor. The laws of competition drive the capitalists to squeeze out the maximum amount of work for the minimum pay possible. The profit thereby generated is constantly reinvested into new methods to maximize productivity, reduce costs, and boost market share. This cycle repeats itself ad infinitum. Capital and labor, therefore, have opposing interests.
Hunger, poverty and unemployment in a capitalist society are strictly artificial. Poverty, for instance, isn’t caused by a lack of resources. Production under capitalism is unplanned and carried out on the basis of profit, not human need. In other words, under capitalism people don’t starve because there isn’t enough food; they starve because ensuring that people are fed isn’t profitable. People aren’t unemployed because there isn’t productive work to be done, but because it isn’t profitable to employ them.
Rather than place blame for social ills where it belongs—on the wealthy beneficiaries of the system—Boggs and Birkhold argue that we are all equally responsible, because we all enjoy the “technological and economic advances” that have become a “fetter on developing a revolutionary movement.” Thus, at a time when the ruling 1% is violently crushing protests against neoliberal austerity programs around the world—programs designed to transfer the wealth produced by the majority into its own hands—Boggs and Birkhold call on “the masses to make material sacrifices”! While the spokespeople of neoliberalism say, that governments shouldn’t do for people what they can do for themselves, Boggs and Birkhold reply, “People should do for themselves what the government doesn’t want to do,” and the 1% goes on reaping unprecedented profits at the expense of both people and the planet.
The capitalist imperative for “accumulation for the sake of accumulation, production for the sake of production” creates, according to the Marxist geographer David Harvey,
a whole ideology centered on the virtues of growth. Growth is inevitable, growth is good. Not to grow is to be in crisis. But endless growth means production for production’s sake, which also means consumption for consumption’s sake. Anything that gets in the way of growth is bad. Barriers and limits to growth have to be dissolved. Environmental problems? Too bad! The relation to nature must be transformed. Social and political problems? Too bad! Repress critics and send recalcitrants to jail. Geopolitical barriers? Break them down with violence if necessary.
This ideology is advanced and enforced by all the means at the capitalists’ disposal. Schools, the media, advertising, and politicians are all set to sing the same capitalist tune. “The ideas of the ruling class in every epoch are the ruling ideas,” wrote Marx in The German Ideology. “The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.”
That doesn’t mean that ideas are the purely passive reflection of reality. Ideas have very definite consequences for our material reality, even when they don’t accurately reflect or explain social phenomena. But ideas in themselves are not the material or determining factor in shaping society. As Karl Marx argued in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,
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.
The material world and the ideological exist in dialectical relationship. Yet, ultimately, it is the material realm that plays the determining (i.e. limiting) role. According to Harvey:
We cannot transform what’s going on around us without transforming ourselves. Conversely, we can’t transform ourselves without transforming everything going on around us. . .. This dialectic, of perpetually transforming oneself by transforming the world and vice versa, is fundamental to understanding the evolution of human societies as well as the evolution of nature itself. . .Ideas are in some sense wholly natural (this is a position fundamentally at odds with Hegelian idealism). . .. Our mental conceptions of the world are not divorced from our material experiences, our central engagements with the world, and therefore, they are not independent of those engagements. But there is. . .an inevitable externalization of an internal relation.
Hence, if we want, as Boggs and Birkhold say, to “repudiate” bourgeois ideology, its “cultural images and symbols,” and so on, we must first demand a new society, not a new consciousness transmitted into the present from an imaginary future.
The productive forces that have developed under capitalism create the precondition for a whole new society. Having created the potential to feed, house, and clothe everyone on the planet while keeping in harmony with the natural environment, a society based on equality, solidarity, and democracy is really possible. Yet in the hands of the capitalists, this potential is inverted, and the forces of production become the means for exploitation, oppression, and boundless ecological destruction.
It is only with this advanced state of production that the possibilities of creating a really just society can exist. Only under the conditions where everyone has everything they need to survive is classlessness possible, lest humanity be doomed to splinter into factions competing over scarce resources all over again. As Marx explained, the “development of productive forces. . .is an absolutely necessary practical premise because without it want is merely made general, and with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business [Scheiße] would necessarily be reproduced.”
The task for those struggling for this new society is, therefore, to liberate the revolutionary potential of these productive forces from the barriers set in place by capitalist society—by seizing them and putting them under the direct, democratic control of the exploited and the oppressed. That is, eliminating those barriers by overthrowing capitalist society.
“Visionary Organizing” and revolutionary socialism: How does consciousness change?
“In the history of revolutions there come to light contradictions that have ripened for decades and centuries. Life becomes unusually eventful. The masses, which have always stood in the shade and therefore have often been despised by superficial observers, enter the political arena as active combatants. . .These masses are making heroic efforts to rise to the occasion and cope with the gigantic tasks of world significance imposed upon them by history; and however great individual defeats may be. . .nothing will ever compare in importance with this direct training that the masses and the classes receive in the course of the revolutionary struggle itself.” – V.I. Lenin, “What is Happening in Russia?” (1905)
Marx’s statement that the ruling ideas are those of the ruling class may appear hopelessly pessimistic and cynical. If that’s the case, how can we ever change society? People absorb the “ruling ideas” from the ruling class. These ruling ideas become the “common sense” of society, as the Italian revolutionary philosopher Antonio Gramsci put it. These ideas are taken for granted and give people a sense of how the world functions. Though uncritically accepted, because people take part in conceptualizing the world, everyone engages in some kind of “philosophical” activity. According to Gramsci,
Everyone is a philosopher, though in his own way and unconsciously, since even in the slightest manifestation of any intellectual activity whatever, in “language,” there is contained a specific conception of the world, one then moves on to the second level, which is that of awareness and criticism.
In order to change the world, people need to be made conscious and critical of the ruling ideas they’ve uncritically absorbed from the ruling class. For their purposes, the basis for this criticism must already exist, since it can’t be given to people from outside the world of our practical activities. This basis exists because people inherit, along with the ruling ideas, a fractured consciousness, based on the contradictions actually existing in society. Writes Gramsci
The active man-in-the-mass has a practical activity, but has no clear theoretical consciousness of his practical activity, which nonetheless involves understanding the world in so far as it transforms it. His theoretical consciousness can indeed be historically in opposition to his activity. One might almost say that he has two theoretical consciousness’s (or one contradictory consciousness): one which is implicit in his activity and which in reality unites him with all his fellow workers in the practical transformation of the real world; and one, superficially explicit or verbal, which he has inherited from the past and uncritically absorbed.
While people inherit the ideas of the ruling class, those ideas are in contradiction with the reality of oppression and exploitation that people experience but don’t conceptualize theoretically. According to Gramsci, this “contradictory consciousness” can have disastrous results, as it can leave one without direction and pushed toward apathy and passivity. However, a “critical understanding” of one’s consciousness can be worked out in the conflict between competing political forces: between the exploiter and the exploited.
While the prevailing ideas in every society are the ideas of the ruling class, those ideas cannot contain the need for struggle that is time-to-time felt by the exploited and oppressed in society. Oppression breeds resistance. But resistance does not automatically evolve into revolutionary consciousness.
The foundation for a new, revolutionary conception of the world already exists, but the discovery of this revolutionary consciousness isn’t predetermined. Revolutionary ideas, therefore, are not injected into struggle from the outside, but already exist within the movement itself and need to be parsed from the old ideas. This task can only be carried out intentionally by those who already embrace their revolutionary responsibility. This “conscious leadership,” which already exists in every struggle, must therefore organize together to help distinguish and distill the new, revolutionary ideas from the old ones. This organization of “conscious leadership” is what Gramsci called “the modern prince”—the revolutionary party.
Emergent social movements have the potential to form the basis of a real revolutionary force. Even though the demands or grievances raised by the movement may at first appear weak or moderate, they tend to become more radical as the movement progresses. “Those who expect a pure revolution will never live to see one,” as Lenin put it. In his autobiography The Long Haul, Myles Horton drew similar conclusions from his experience in the civil rights movement:
In a social movement we are clearly part of a collective struggle that encourages us to increase our demands.. . .In a social movement, the demands escalate, because your success encourages and emboldens you to demand more. I became convinced that the seeds of the civil rights movement lay in the Montgomery bus boycott, because I’d seen the demands for fixed seating escalate to demands for blacks to be able to sit wherever they wanted. And then, when I saw the demands for blacks to be able to sit anywhere they wanted escalate to a demand for black drivers, I said, “This is the beginning of a social movement.” The ante went up and finally escalated into demands that they do away with all public segregation.
The civil rights movement grew into the motivating force behind all the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s—against US imperialism, for women’s liberation, Black and brown power, gay liberation, and it ushered in a whole new wave of labor militancy, creating all manner of new revolutionary possibilities.
People join movements as they are, not as we wish them to be—for their own reasons, with their own motivations, and their own varying degrees of political consciousness. Economic crises, the outbreak of war, an act of sexual violence, a tuition hike, or a racist murder, all have the potential to sweep people into political activity to demand reforms, or to vent their anger and frustrations. These motivations, although not immediately revolutionary, are the starting points for most people in developing revolutionary consciousness. Through the course of struggle, people become more aware of society’s real contours, and gain confidence in their own creativity and potential to transform the world as part of a collective movement. Instead of rejecting these social movements and cutting ourselves off from them, revolutionaries must be in the center of them; encouraging their development and helping to distill revolutionary ideas from the ruling ideas that enter into every social movement and seek to forestall the movement’s growth and escalation.
It is a grave error to reject the potential of these movements, and completely wrong to argue, as Boggs does, that social movements fail to “change the cultural images or the symbols” that shape people, i.e. to challenge the ruling ideas of society and transform people’s political consciousness. Social movements are, in fact, the only way to successfully fight society’s ruling ideas, and replace them with new, revolutionary conceptions of the world.
We cannot win a new world simply by “reimagining” the old one. Our revolution must be made with the stuff capitalism gives us—with people and conditions as they really are. As Marx wrote, criticizing the so-called utopian socialists of his time:
Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence. . .“Liberation” is an historical and not a mental act, and it is brought about by historical conditions. . .In reality and for the practical materialist, i.e., the communist, it is a question of revolutionizing the existing world, of practically attacking and changing existing things.
We have to make the new society from the stuff that the present gives us to work with. In the course of attacking capitalist society, its policies, its wars, and its violence, people begin to transform themselves and to take their seat as rulers of the future society. In other words, the act of the destruction of capitalist society is in itself a part of the creative process of forming a new society. The “revolution is necessary,” Marx said, “not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.” This is precisely why the self-emancipation of the working class is at the heart of Marxism.
The “two-pronged” strategy
The Boggses and Birkhold mechanically separate the struggle against capitalism and the struggle for a new society. According to their perspective, sometimes activists are attacking and dismantling the old system through collective action; other times they’re creating alternative institutions that anticipate the forms of the future society (always, however, with the emphasis on the latter). According to Birkhold, James Boggs called this the “two-pronged” strategy, which combined the struggle against the “internal” enemy alongside the struggle against the “external” enemy.
A two-pronged strategy means, for example, that we organize against foreclosures but also “reimagine” housing. Another example is that, while resisting corporations who “destroy communities by closing down our places of work,” we “must be building the communities necessary for the human identity of ourselves and our children.” This entails things like opening “locally owned stores. . .so that we can buy our necessities locally and our young people can see stores not just as places where you spend money. . .but as places where people are working to meet the needs of the community.” Hence, Boggs suggests, “In every neighborhood there should be a bakery where families can purchase freshly baked bread and children can stop by after school to buy their sweets.”
It’s clear that for James Boggs, struggle must take a back seat to alternative building when he writes that “We must recognize that it is much easier to cuss out and blame somebody else out there or to resist shutting down a hospital than it is to change our way of living so that we are practicing preventative health care—even though we know that if we are not healthy we won’t be able to struggle at all. So our first serious struggle should be to stop eating junk food.”
While many would likely reject the suggestion that one should spend resources supporting small business development—and rightfully so, as small businesses are subject to the same laws of capitalist competition, and are guided by these principles to exploit labor and accumulate capital just as much as any monopoly capitalist—this principle of the “two-pronged” approach is common among anarchists and some revolutionary socialists. Sometimes we attack the system; other times we build the future society.
However, these forms of struggle are not mechanically separated but are dialectically unified, with mass struggle at the center. The laws of capitalist accumulation, market competition, and the conditions created by various forms of oppression, make it impossible for one to meaningfully “prefigure” the future society in the present through building experimental projects. Without transforming the hostile terrain, all prefigurative institutions inevitably suffer the same fate as Robert Owen’s utopian experimental communities of the past. As Rosa Luxemburg, the German revolutionary socialist, warned: “The workers forming a co-operative. . .are obliged to take toward themselves the role of capitalist entrepreneur—a contradiction that accounts for the usual failure of production co-operatives which either become pure capitalist enterprises or, if the workers’ interests continue to predominate, end by dissolving.”
Indeed, as one member of the enormous Mondragon cooperative system in Spain lamented, cooperatives cannot “flourish as a cooperative island in a capitalist world.” “Alternative” institutions must either accommodate to the laws of capitalism if they want to survive, or collapse in failure. Like many of the utopians in the past, many projects today must remain beholden to either wealthy individuals or foundations for money to survive, and be ever careful not to bite the hand that feeds. The most revolutionary experiments are inevitably crushed by the state. In other words, if we want to win a socialist society, then we have to transform the terrain hostile to those socialist values—solidarity, democracy, equality and so forth—rather than simply try and wish it away.
The method for building the new world, therefore, cannot come from “prefiguring” the future society. “We do not dogmatically anticipate the world” wrote Marx, “but only want to find the new world through criticism of the old one.” That is, we should not predict and build all the forms and features of the future society, as the utopians tried, but instead we should try to discover the basis of the new society through revolutionizing the present.
Birkhold uses the term “dual power” to describe the strategy of building alternative institutions—what he calls “beloved communities”—aimed at prefiguring the future society. He uses the examples like time banks and small businesses, but could have suggested free schools, workers’ cooperatives, and so on. In his essay Birkhold suggests that
Beloved communities are spaces where people can be nurtured and heal the damage our racist, sexist, capitalist world has done, giving us a foundation to develop identities outside of capitalist categories and consumption, while creating a base for political power stemming from the creation of alternative institutions, or dual power structures. Beloved communities thus serve as a transmission belt for the radical revolution of values needed for a revolution in which we have to sacrifice material things.
Birkhold borrows the term “dual power” from the experience of the socialist movement and from the history of the Russian Revolution in particular. However, while borrowing the term, he completely distorts its meaning. In the course of the Russian Revolution, the working class formed workers’ councils (called “soviets” in Russian). These bodies consisted of democratically elected workplace delegates (later also to include soldiers, sailors, and peasant delegates in 1917) and were in fierce completion for political power against the tsarist state. The workers’ councils first emerged during the failed revolution of 1905 as a spontaneous formation during a wave of general strikes. Initially, workers created soviets to coordinate strikes and keep essential workplaces operating under workers’ control. They weren’t, therefore, conjured up by a group of radicals reflecting on how the world ought to be, but were instead the direct result of the practical needs of an escalating class struggle. It became clear to some that these were not only organs of popular struggle, but also the embryo of a popular government. The Russian revolutionary Lenin, hardly a notable figure at the time of writing, immediately recognized the significance of this new body, writing,
I may be wrong, but I believe. . .that politically the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies should be regarded as the embryo of a provisional revolutionary government. I think the Soviet should proclaim itself the provisional revolutionary government of the whole of Russia as early as possible, or should set up a provisional revolutionary government.
In the course of the revolutionary struggle that erupted in February 1917 the soviet form reemerged, this time more widespread and entrenched as the self-active form of the political power of the working class and oppressed masses. It was at this moment that the dual-power situation emerged in Russia, between February and October 1917, when the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary struggles were virtually equal in their power. The ruling class could not suppress the revolutionary movement, but the revolutionary movement was not yet powerful enough to abolish the old state and put their new form of power in its place. Dual power, then, was an inherently temporary situation in which one power (either soviet power or the power of the bourgeois provisional government, both of which had emerged after the fall of the Tsar) must assert itself against the other or perish.
Dual power, then, is a revolutionary moment of political crisis—not a “strategy”—in which the self-active institutions of working class political power are in a life-or-death competition with the dominant political institutions of the ruling class. The social crisis of dual power represents a moment in which the contradictions of capitalist society are brought to a pitch—where the revolutionary future is struggling to smash through the reactionary barriers of the outmoded capitalist past. Time-banks, small businesses, community gardens, communes, and workers’ co-ops are not the modern equivalents of soviet power. It is a misnomer to call these “dual power institutions,” because they do not possess the power to revolutionize or substantively transform society.
“We fight for better days; it shall rise from the ashes.”
Rather than needing to be “reimagined,” the mission of revolutionary socialism is perhaps more relevant than ever. As the planet moves ever closer to ecological catastrophe; as Black youth across America are shot dead by the police or thrown into crowded prisons; as schools are turned into for-profit businesses, and homes are snatched up by banks; as more and more people suffer, and starve, while unbelievable wealth is hoarded by a tiny 1% of the population, the classic dilemma—“Socialism or Barbarism?”—stares us squarely in the face. Given the global resurgence of mass movements on a world scale, it seems that humanity is not so ready to accept its condition.
The 1% will stop at nothing in their lust for profit. If there is a dollar to be made they must have it, even if it means the destruction of the whole planet. These conditions call for real action based on an analysis of our real conditions; not imaginary solutions and visions of what the world ought to be like, but real conclusions drawn from a study of the way the world actually is.
Although motivated by sincere desire to change society, “visionary” organizing doesn’t measure up to the task. The society of the 1% isn’t founded on corrupted values, but in a particular process of production. And people’s ideas don’t change in an isolated vacuum, separated from mass struggles, left to the same old conditions of exploitation, competition, and oppression. If we want to transform consciousness, we need to transform the world. We cannot change ourselves to change the world; rather, we must change the world to change ourselves.
“Alternative” institutions, planted in the hostile soil of capitalist exploitation, competition, and oppression, fail to take root and flourish. They are inevitably suffocated by these conditions, either adapting to the norms of capitalist society, or breaking apart in spite of them. Without an alternative direction for their energy, many activists burn out, trying time and again to form new projects that model the future society in the stifling conditions of the present. The lesson, then, is not that society is just waiting for the right utopian experiment, nor that change is impossible, but rather that we must transform these suffocating conditions through mass collective action. This level of struggle may not be possible at all times; changing social conditions can make it more or less likely. But capitalist society inevitably breeds the conditions for a struggle between exploiter and exploited, oppressed and oppressor, that can erupt with new revolutionary potential.
“Visionary organizing” ill prepares activists for these moments of revolutionary potential. By telling people to “turn their backs” on mass struggles, “visionary organizing” isolates and divides sincere revolutionaries. In one example, as the Occupy movement began to erupt in Detroit, attracting more than 800 people to its first general assembly, activists influenced by so-called “visionary” organizing wrote an open letter saying that Detroit—a city which suffers an official poverty rate of almost 30 percent and an unemployment rate of over 50 percent—is a city which is already “modeling life after capitalism” and that it has “moved beyond protest.” The impact of the letter was disorienting for the emergent movement, and discouraging to the hundreds of newly engaged activists.
As the experiences of Madison, Occupy, and Egypt show us—struggle cannot be avoided, whether we want it or not. Through its neoliberal programs, the ruling class has pushed the contradictions of the system to a fever pitch. In 2008, the nature of this system was made plain for all to see and ushered in a new era of mass struggle. Now, try as rulers might in the United States, Greece, Egypt, and elsewhere, the genie will not go back in the bottle. With the experience of mass struggle back on the agenda, tens of thousands across the country are learning first hand the lesson Fredrick Douglass taught us in 1857, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” The ubiquitous cynicism in humanity that seemed to characterize the 2000s is starting to be washed away by waves of popular protest, and the real contours of our society are becoming clearer to people every day.
A new world is beginning, slowly, to emerge “through the criticism of the old one.” It may seem to be a faint light, but anyone who cannot see it isn’t paying attention. Millions across the world are learning the meaning of solidarity, of courage, of power—their own power that they build together—in the theater of practice and mass collective action. Rather than stand outside of this struggle, revolutionaries must be in the center of it to encourage (rather than discouraging) people’s participation, and to gather our revolutionary forces. The forms of the new world begin to emerge, not from a blueprint of how the world ought to be, but from the practical necessities of mass struggle. The new world cannot be invented; rather, it must be discovered.