By Zak Brown
First, congratulations to JMP (internet moniker of Joshua Moufawad-Paul) for the release of his book, The Communist Necessity, which has received widespread praise from readers. Hopefully the book does well to popularize a communist politic within activist circles.
As with all dialogue and engagements we hope to promote civil discussion and above all mutual understanding between radical groups. We do not engage in criticism to beat other groups/organizations; we engage in criticism to ultimately learn from one another and perhaps advance our struggle collectively. Maybe even determine which approach is the most correct. All of this being said, the following is a criticism of JMP which hopefully incites a response and perhaps ongoing dialogue.
Protracted People’s War (PPW) is one of “those things”. That thing which no one wants to say out loud, in almost any space, for fear of the dreaded stare. It invokes a whole range of emotions and responses. From blatant ignorance about the notion, to relative understanding and dismissal; from the occasional nod of approval, to the more common interjection of historical trivia. It’s safe to say that PPW is not the most popular notion within leftist circles (very far from it) and with respect to the revolutionary left it still commands a fair degree of controversy.
Some of this is due to the fact that when one (such as JMP) references PPW, they are also referring to the systematized notion of its universality: the Universality of Protracted People’s War (UPPW).
This universality and its principle significance is the object of criticism here; however, we should first give due respect to PPW which it is often denied.
First, PPW is not about surrounding cities with your peasant army. PPW, as a strategy or collection of strategies, is not some sort of historical reenactment of the Chinese Revolution. We should not confuse the whole scope of a theory with popular historical instances.
Second, PPW is not always adventurist and not without historical success. To suggest such would be to deny the victories of the world’s oppressed as they were carved through the hard fought people’s wars of the 20th century (and as some would argue the current struggles in places such as India and the Philippines).
Third, if you are going to criticize or discuss PPW, do some investigation first. Primarily so on its development as a political/military strategy. Common understandings, including on the sibling notion of universality, draw heavily from the Chinese experience and from the work of Mao Zedong. Although, the notion has developed steadily from the experiences of Gonzalo and his Shining Path to contemporary analysis provided by groups such as RCP-PCR and similar Maoist formations elsewhere. All of which compose what we mean when we say “Protracted People’s War”, as a historical, military, and political object of study.
PPW is an ambitious project. Certainly, when a group organized as a revolutionary subject seeks to capture political power for the purpose of socialism “things escalate”. The ambition of PPW should not be controversial. If you call yourself a radical, if you consider yourself revolutionary, you already understand the gravity of social change. The fact that history is defined through struggle, not waiting for political earthquakes to rupture the grounded state and for liberation to land squarely in our laps. Everyone within the left has to confront this dilemma in one form or another; we should not dismiss PPW on the basis of something we all find to be significant (the acquisition of power).
Equally so, the question we all face is how?
How do we challenge our current power structures? How do we change the status quo in such a significant way? How do we have revolution?
PPW answers this through a series of tactics, methods, and strategy which can be briefly outlined as a political and military development of strategic ‘stages’: from strategic defensive, to equilibrium, to offensive and the eventual defeat of the established state power. The prerequisite to such an endeavor is the building of a revolutionary party which commands “mass support” (as detailed by contemporary proponents) and which cultivates this support as the broader revolutionary scene matures. During PPW, base areas are established among the masses so that Dual Power of the communist sort can be constructed and the political/military readiness of the oppressed is advanced. PPW also adopts military tactics which can be definitive in asymmetric warfare where the opposing force is far more established and well-equipped. The critical advantage that proponents of PPW claim is the organic potential of the masses in making history for themselves (to sum it very crudely).
Ultimately, we are not trying to provide a comprehensive theory of PPW. We will leave that for the proponents of the notion themselves, and encourage readers to investigate the strategy further as our brief explanation leaves so much of the nuance from the discussion.
However, our contention is not entirely with PPW itself. There is much to be learned from how it has been theorized as well as historical and contemporary instances. We are not dismissing PPW to the “dustbin of history”.
Instead, we are interrogating this notion of universality which carries with it so much weight relative to PPW itself.
What is argued by JMP and others is that PPW is the universal strategy for socialist revolution, as a whole. Sure, there is some more to that statement in and of itself, but overall that is the position we are engaging. What JMP and others claim to have done, or at least to have a meaningful “lead” on, is the question inherent to revolution itself. How? And so we treat their claims as not only being profound with respect to our present social circumstance in North America but with the added importance that “universality” entails.
So is that it, do we have the answer?
To paraphrase Deleuze, there are not only wrong answers but principally wrong questions.
Before we elaborate we should engage the points presented by JMP as to outline our own criticism. All of the following selections are from his article, The Refusal of Strategy.
Normativity of Insurrection”
If the reason for the rejection of PPW is due to a disinterest in revolutionary strategy, then the commenters should be rejected out of hand…Because any revolutionary theory actually requires the time and effort to think about its implementation rather than leave it to some future perfect moment when the possibility will manifest. If your organization does not theorize revolutionary strategy then it is not a revolutionary organization.”
Here we must agree with JMP. Certainly any person who calls themselves a “communist” must consider the possibility of revolution as that ‘all-or-nothing’ objective. He makes a very bold claim as well regarding the nature of a “revolutionary organization”. It’s refreshing to see that radical urgency towards developing ways forward even if we find the necessary conclusion to be false (with specific attention to historical contingencies).
He even lashes out against those more ‘affinity’-oriented revolutionaries identifying their initiatives as being “bourgeois assumptions” about “individual autonomy”.
This attitude appears more clearly in the following paragraph.
In this sense, to say “good luck with that” to PPW is to say “good luck with communism.” After all, to think through the problematic of strategy is to think about making communism a reality. If you’re not thinking about what it takes to move from capitalism to communism, and have nothing but disdain for those who do so by avoiding formulaic answers, then you might as well not be a communist. Communism in theory instead of practice: you don’t like capitalism but you proceed as if it is impossible to supersede its boundaries––really, what’s the point. What this rejection demonstrates is a fear of socialism, an unwillingness to embark on the hard work required to bring socialism into being, and thus an acceptance of business as usual.”
I am not convinced those who reject PPW as a strategy for revolution in North America, or as a universal strategy par excellence, are unfit to carry the banner of communism or fearful of socialism. What JMP says regarding the “problematic of strategy” is true, but only at the level of banality. Everyone knows strategy is difficult. Everyone knows real political practice isn’t a tea party. We call it a struggle for a reason. And certainly “class” struggle only intensifies our expectations.
What he is doing is closing space for dissent within leftist groups. At least in the meaningful sense of criticism/self-criticism which is not considered cynical of strategy. Criticism which is relegated to “possible solutions” is criticism in name only; criticism which is powerless and indicative of dogmatism.
In fairness, everyone who considers themselves a “radical” is at least considering this method to some degree or another. Maybe not to the “formulaic” standard suggested by JMP and others. But considering the possibility nonetheless and it is precisely this foundational exploration which serves as ‘year 0’ for all revolutionary projects.
Evidence to this is the political work shared by almost every radical and revolutionary formation. Certainly, there are great variances between forms of engagement/practice, and the theory which supports it; however, they all move within the realm of “activism” and “direct action”, and with great fairness to the specific work by all of our comrades, they generally participate alongside each other in many events.
What does this indicate? Does this mean everyone has the same revolutionary strategy informing their collective action? Maybe. But this is perhaps too generous to the interpretation put forward by JMP and others, as well as our basic knowledge of the disparity between groups. It seems far more likely that the specific “revolutionary strategy”, the “end game”, the text of ideology enjoyed by different revolutionary formations is not as indicative to political practice as we might imagine. This does not dissolve the important theoretical and practical differences between groups, but more importantly contextualizing these activities as being what they actually exist as: long-held political rituals, not some profound break with “things as usual”.
There are, of course, notable exceptions and we should investigate these exceptions for what makes them so ‘worthy’ of admiration. However, we are not here to establish exceptions to the rule. We have to treat the situation with respect to how it commonly appears and in doing so we might have to step on a few toes.
None of this implies that the commonly expected “political rituals” don’t matter. They do. Arguably, they matter quite a bit. But it would be better if we treat the matter honestly and with frankness to what actually exists and not how we simply desire that to be interpreted.
Beneath this, though, is the fear of revolution. To strategize what is necessary to make communism, I’m beginning to realize, is less acceptable than theorizing the problems of capitalism where the steps required to make it obsolete are relegated to forces beyond our control. The theory of insurrection is useful in this regard: you can have your spontaneous and vague future horizon––some insurrectionary uprising at an unknown point––without doing anything to make it happen. We can come up with innumerable excuses as to why we shouldn’t pursue a revolutionary agenda where we live (i.e. the masses aren’t ready, let’s embrace opportunism as a fact and not do anything to change it, there are no revolutionary agents here, a supposed but only presumed anti-communist ideology inherited from the cold war means that all talk of communist strategy is alienating, we need to do more work in making conditions appealing, etc.), and celebrate such movements elsewhere, because this means we don’t have to do anything but complain about how much we hate capitalism. Finding a reason as to why we can just sit back and shit on those who are trying to think through the theory of strategy aligns perfectly with capitalist ideology: you can do nothing, hate capitalism, and never worry about directly fighting it in your social context––concrete confrontation will fail anyway, right? But such an attitude contributes to fighting these movements; it is counter-revolutionary.”
1. His first premise is almost entirely false. Every leftist formation of any relative significance carries with it its own “sacred cow” for revolution: the ‘true strategy’ which will lift us from the chains of capitalism. Even if this strategy is not explicit, it is implicit in the discourse employed when taken as a whole. On the far left, we are obsessed with this “moment” of something grand; the point at which power is finally seized and we can begin the ‘construction of socialism’. We imagine the victory of the proletariat as being glorious, triumphant, masses drawn into the streets in celebration. We imagine the heat of the struggle, the anxiety of the fight, and we fantasize about ourselves in the midst of the chaos. With this said, perhaps there is too much “strategization” afoot and not enough clear-headed thinking about our immediate objectives and how they pertain to our current and material conditions.
2. We agree, the “normativity of insurrection” is to be criticized and understood as undeserving of the weight it carries. However, there is a reason why the insurrectionary mode of thought prevails against other modes and it has little to do with a “laziness” and “unwillingness” to engage material circumstances. After all, those communists and anarchists (be they from whatever organization) influenced by insurrectionary theory are ultimately doing the same activities as those who criticize it (such as JMP). Insurrection is a popular position, despite being more or less implicit, because it reflects the fundamental ambiguity of our present situation.
We live in the “belly of the beast” (those of us comrades in North America) and to argue this has no relevancy would be foolish. There are arguably more Insane Clown Posse fans than active or openly self-identifying “communists”. What little relevancy most of our formations have is mitigated by the overwhelming force of NGO’s active in the same spaces, liberal movementism on campus and in the workplace, or simple and outright repression. Despite this we are confronted with increasing financial uncertainty, a widening gap between the low and high incomes, a deteriorating education and ‘work readiness’ system, and an overall disillusionment with the “progress” of our liberal-democratic society.
Our present situation within North America is as ambiguous as it is dynamic. I would rather err on the side of complexity than exercise a politically fruitless existence with a wrongly held, unifying theme. This is why insurrection remains the most popular attitude, even if discreetly so.
Plausibility is an important issue here.
Historically speaking, we know long-standing struggle can culminate into a profound moment of rupture. A monumental and moving “possibility” where all opportunity rests. The distinct plausibility of an insurrection, be that whatever it may in whatever form conceivable, rests upon the recognition of this “chance” when forces culminate and the material as well as subjective conditions are “right”.
We also know that such struggles can be resolved after the ardous application of a strategy such as Protracted People’s War (given, with certain historical notes to be made on the particularity of the matter).
We also know both can fail. Both have failed. And it’s considerably plausible they would fail again.
Finally, we happen upon JMP’s basic thesis against those naysayers of PPW and its universality:
“From this attitude comes the vague claim that there are no general theories of strategy that can be adopted by any movement, that strategy will need to be invented when “the time is right”, and that it doesn’t make sense to think through this problem according to a universal theory because reality is too complex. Such a position hinges upon two interconnected assumptions: a) that nothing can be learned from history in regards to strategy, that theories of strategy somehow exist outside of history, and thus outside of class struggle, in some pure philosophical void; b) that we can spontaneously generate a unique revolutionary strategy when a revolutionary moment is upon us. If we are historical materialists, though, then we must regard the first assumption as obviously wrong since nothing exists outside of history and what has been tried in the past––and applied successfully or unsuccessfully elsewhere––should demand our attention and investigation. The second assumption is contradictory: if we begin by assuming that reality is too complex to teach us anything about a general theory of strategy, then it is equally too complex to tell us when “the time is right” to spontaneously generate such a thing… unless of course we assume that spontaneity is some sort of mystical force that will be aware of a correct time and self-create a unique strategy all by itself. In actuality, to claim that there is no such thing as a general theory of strategy––a universally applicable theory, though mediated by contextual particularities––is to maintain that we don’t care about strategy, about trying to make revolution, and this is either laziness or what Derbent termed a “disqualification” of ourselves from the revolutionary camp.”
1. The question is not whether history can ‘inform us’ but whether or not we consider that to be pertinent. It is true, nothing exists outside of history, but future has not yet found its “place” in history for a specific reason: it is the future. Take for example, the success of the Russian Revolution or the Chinese Revolution. Both of which were great and monumental culminations of force that we now consider example to our present struggle – and fields of study in and of themselves. However, before the Russian Revolution there was no principle of the ‘universality of insurrection’ (let alone as it occurred with respect to the ‘backwards conditions’ of Tsarist Russia). Before the Chinese Revolution, there was no “universality of Protracted People’s War” (considering the theory itself was being carved during this period). And although arguably both events were partially informed by previous experiences, both successful and failed, neither were continuities of an existing universal notion.
That is not how revolutionary strategy nor revolution history is formed.
And what should we make of the failed German revolution? Exemplary of the particular character of insurrection itself? Perhaps. What do we make of the failed Protracted People’s War in Peru? Exemplary of the particular character of PPW itself? Perhaps. However, it is only by method of interpretation that one is considered universal by its failure and the other condemned to inadequacy and ‘exception’.
2. The question is not one of ‘spontaneity’ of the ‘time is right’ but one of concrete historical instances. Our investigation of history is not only dialectical and materialist, it is also respectful to those ‘defining contingencies’ so often integrated but fundamentally reduced. Shifts, moments, events, exceptions, these are the pivots upon which history turns. Not the modal consistency put forward in any given historical or theoretical continuity. We need to highlight the inconsistency, the fragmented, the ’empty space’ wherein history transpires.
JMP asks his opponents, if historical materialism cannot inform us of the present, how can it inform us of the “then”.
The problem is that historical materialism does inform us of the present but not in the sense of a positive knowledge. It doesn’t go, “here, the science of making revolution at your command!” it goes, “here, the ways in which revolution has failed/succeeded” and from there instigates our investigation of the present.
Without supporting the general notion of insurrection, I would turn JMP’s proposition on himself. If historical materialism cannot delineate “exceptions” to the norm, then how do we know what the “norm” even is?
Abdicating Strategy, Abdicating Investigation
JMP suggests that by drawing into question “general theories” we are in fact rejecting revolutionary strategy wholesale. He goes as far as to claim this rejection “disqualifies” us from the revolutionary camp.
Without treading into theory, we should criticize his remarks here for the haste in which they dispel criticism and opposition. This points us strongly to the period of Marxist dogmatism wherein anything vaguely unorthodox was “revisionism” which was of course the mortal sin within Marxist circles. Whether or not that period ever ended is a good question.
JMP might as well have called those who reject the universality of PPW “revisionists” and perhaps this is his position, I am unsure; however, the implication of dogmatism is very strong there and the assertion itself is unsubstantiated.
The irony here is that JMP’s line liquidates the very struggle he hopes to extend.
By suggesting the “universality” of PPW he has in fact suggested the greater part of our work is already finished. We have a universal theory. We have a universal method. We have tactics, principles, and a historically confirmed route to success.
JMP would respond that his advocacy only opens a greater realm of questions e.g. How do we make PPW, how do we build mass support, how do we build base areas etc. In doing so, he would suggest that the universality of PPW opens many more doors than it closes and therefore the “problem of strategy” is still very much present.
This brings us back to the Delueze at the start of our piece. There are both wrong answers and wrong questions.
The universality of PPW may ask some interesting questions and pose for us significant fields of investigation but we must ask whether or not those are correct to themselves. Once again, the problem is not particularly with PPW but with the suggestion of its universality. In doing so, every conceivable criticism is just a “rejection of strategy”. Every observable flaw is simply “difference in particular circumstances”. The guarantee of success is there, we need only work through “mediating contexts”. Universality modifies the question of PPW itself into something of a religious rather than Marxist endeavor.
As tempting as it is to go about with our sacred universal theory and fret ourselves with “making it work”, we must sometimes take a dose of reality. The reality is that we don’t truly know whether or not this theory is universal. The near collective familiarity of our leftist political rituals only reaffirms this position. We are often times fish swimming onward and nothing more. My own position is incredibly skeptical of any theory toward revolution which, not only presents unifying and totalizing themes, but does so with special attention to its own universality. What this really demonstrates, more than anything, is a conceptual arrogance which clouds investigative thought with its own grandeur.
Taking such a strong position of universality actually abdicates the question of strategy, rather than affirming it. It abdicates dutiful investigation, rather than promoting it. We need to ask ourselves not about answers, but about the questions we are putting forward and whether or not those correspond to our given experiences and confirmed knowledge.
PPW as an Actual Strategy
Throughout this entire piece I have criticized JMP for his methodology as well as presentation of his argument for the universality of PPW. Not yet, and not in any systematic way, have I actually confronted the question of PPW within North America.
Is it possible? Is it conceivable? How? Can we weigh it against other strategies?
First, there is some brilliance to PPW itself. Particularly so at the political level of building mass support and constructing Dual Power. Both of which I find to be paramount in any revolutionary situation in the indeterminant future (importantly, not universal elements, just ones worth building). However, that is probably where the train ends and despite some interesting insight into asymmetric war, we cannot really consider this unique to PPW in the same way as the previous mentions. Similar tactics have existed as long as war has existed, and are arguably presented in a more coherent fashion by other military theorists.
Unfortunately, we might find ourselves repeating criticisms leveled at the notion of PPW in North America before. This is not because we are concerned with any specific lineage of criticism, but only by coincidence as there has not been any meaningful or compelling response to many of the standard criticisms leveled against PPW (remember, those done in good faith).
1. How can PPW overcome overwhelming state repression? I’m sure there is a ready response here, with historical references to the success of previous and present PPW’s, and probably some self-reference to the organic potential of the masses etc. However, none of these are compelling reasons to entertain the idea that largely non-military types can overcome a militarily superior force in every sense of the term. Certainly, the specific material and social conditions of North America do not support the case either. Unlike previous and current PPW’s, PPW in North America would not enjoy the same physical terrain and difference which assists similar struggles. Like it or not, the presence of a rugged and largely rural landscape gives a significant advantage to forces protecting a base area. Terrain which prevents the entry of heavy armor, makes precision bombings ineffective, makes sweeping search-and-destroy operations nearly impossible. Where is the stage for such a scene in North America? One might suggest the temperate forests of the US or the tundra of Canada, but is that really the advocacy? Most self-proclaimed proponents of PPW seem to envision an urban based PPW or at least one with significant fronts there. How is that even conceivable? It wasn’t long ago when senior members of FRSO were arrested in connection with an (FBI) plot to fund the PFLP; their security was compromised and in little time, with little resources, federal forces made several arrests and seized significant data. What happens when even more intense repression falls on urban cells of a would-be base area under the pretext of “combating terrorism”? A couple anonymous tips, an intercepted phone call, an overzealous Facebook post, and the police are knocking on your door. One might argue that we have never seen the organic potential which PPW entails within the First World. I would argue we cannot imagine the degree of repression that would befall such an attempt.
2. How do you supply such an endeavor? The Chinese Communists enjoyed considerable military and technical support from their Soviet allies. It’s arguable whether or not this support was as effectual as it could have been, or whether or not it was just placating a conflict, but the support existed, persisted, and affected the situation nonetheless. Similarly so with the people’s war which was fought for the unification of Vietnam. The amount of the support the Viet Minh received, and by proxy the Viet Cong, from the Soviet Union in particular is immeasurable. Small arms, heavy arms, munitions, medical supplies, as well as technical aid were all provided generously by the Soviet Union to assist their comrades in Vietnam. This does nothing to belittle the struggle of the Chinese or the Vietnamese in their respective struggles; however, it would be entirely asinine to assume that the considerable military, political, and technical support they received had no impact on the outcome of the conflict. A PPW in North America would have no such support. Unless our would-be revolutionaries were to receive some miraculous assistance from Cuba, the DPRK, or even China/Russia it’s highly unlikely they would receive any foreign aid at all. Unless, of course, there were significant and successful PPWs in other places that could secure that aid or perhaps concurrent struggles; in which case the revolutionary situation would have radically transformed (to say the absolute least) and such concerns would not even be considered. Ultimately, without guns, how do you have political power? There is a very real technical aspect to warfare especially asymmetric warfare which no one really wants to consider. Take for example, the Kurdish defenders of Kobani and other Kurdish communities under attack from ISIS. What do the Kurdish defenders want? Weapons. Ammunition. Anti-armor capabilities. Technical and logistical assistance. Without it, their defense may be unfortunately hopeless.
[note: as of publishing, it would appear the Kurdish defenders were victorious. An incredible accomplishment and victory for the oppressed everywhere. However, the PKK fighters made careful usage of Western military support, including supply drops, which may have been a significant element to their victory.]
3. How do you secure capable fighters? Sure, you might have mass support. Let’s even grant for a moment that some PPW in North America does have mass support. Mass support does not translate into mass numbers. In fact, most contemporary proponents would suggest that the actual fighting force would be relatively small compared to the community of support it enjoys. However, the intensity of conflict would no doubt put a strain on numbers, as well as the expansive nature of North America itself, requiring a struggle on many fronts. This makes revolutionary forces desperate for capable fighters, also making state infiltration ridiculously easy. Experiences with the internet Left has already shown how little trust you can put towards a name and face only. Imagine the quagmire of having to rely on such, not only as a means of primary communication, but as to procure capable forces. Very unsettling.
It’s not as though PPW is in and of itself is nonviable or nonpragmatic. People’s wars currently exist and with varying degrees of success. The question is whether or not this strategy is applicable to our present circumstance within the “belly of the beast” and that seems greatly unapproachable.
And with a great degree of frankness we should consider the current people’s wars as well. Of course, we stand in solidarity with the oppressed in their struggle against capitalism, neo-colonialism, and imperialism. We hope for nothing but victory. However, even people’s wars such as those of the Naxalites and our Filipino comrades have been considerably “protracted” and riddled with unevenness and uncertainty. At given moments, it would appear they are gaining ground. At others, it appears their gains are mediocre at best. All of this within conditions which are considered more conducive to such strategies.
Of course, history is uneven, struggle is hardly linear, but we must consider the prolonged struggles of more experienced Maoists in their PPW when considering something as profound as PPW within North America.
As the reader may note, everything regarding this theory of PPW hinges upon a quite simple idea: the presence of “mass support”.
What does this mean? Well, everyone is going to provide a different response but specifically we might understand “mass support” as being that broad support towards a particular revolutionary unit from the oppressed and exploited. Not only the given demands of this revolutionary unit (their program and principles), but also their method, their composition, their leadership etc. Arguably, this “mass support” is developed through the course of PPW (some would argue that RAF built mass support as time went on, as well) until there is no uncertainty as to the position of the masses.
While this notion might seem empowering to the cause of PPW in North America, tipping the subjective balance in favor of revolution, it further problematizes the theory itself.
First, how do you maintain “mass support” in face of outstanding propaganda techniques and circulation? At worst, state forces would seize control of all social networking and similar such communication networks to stop the powerful flow of information from revolutionary centers outwards. At best, there would still be considerable dissent from sections of the masses themselves. The conflict then becomes not only about the military defeat of state forces but the decisive and undisputed political defeat of other leftist factions, liberal opponents, etc.
Second, if mass support is so enjoyed that one can engage in something as intense as PPW, why not simply consider more “orthodox” methods of change? E.g. If a revolutionary unit has mass support why not attempt an insurrection of some sort? Or if we really want to be controversial, why not seek popular elections in concert with a dual power structure? It truly renders the original focus of PPW to be at least questionable if not undue altogether.
This question of “mass support” also ties directly into our discussion earlier as to the “political rituals” of the left. It would seem what we all truly want is “mass support” for our actions and positions. Why else devote so much time to the activities that we do? It would seem we all share a common interest in unifying the rather sporadic themes of the masses into a progressive force through making our revolution the revolution. At the absolute least, we should consider this as a necessary starting point for any successful revolutionary endeavor. All this talk of “strategizing revolution” of “thinking about capitalism to socialism” is entirely inconsequential if there exists no mass support from which to work with. This is why these political rituals of the left are so common, shared, and repeated. Generally speaking, we all want the same thing, at least that seems to be case.
What is to be Done?
As the reader may have noticed I have proposed no such alternative strategy to PPW. I am not convinced that what we need is a buffet of competing strategies for readers to choose from like Wikipedia pages for most self-identified “Marxists”.
This is not abdicating the question of strategy. No doubt, as we have have constantly reaffirmed, revolutionary strategy and seizing political power are questions of extreme importance. However, it would be better for us to focus on what we desire immediately, building organizations with significant influence and activity, developing comprehensive demands, and developing that “mass support” we mentioned.
No doubt, many proponents of PPW will retort “that is our strategy!”. Namely, the building of a mass party before the launching of PPW. Unfortunately, our two conceptions are very different. We suggest building organizatons (not necessarily a specific lineage of ‘Party’) for revolution. They (JMP included) suggest building a “mass Party” for Protracted People’s War. The method to do so, as well as the theory and insight which supports both, is very different. We are not concerned with PPW unless PPW is concerned with us. The tendency for Maoists to simply swallow the UPPW means that every contradiction, every success, every failure, and all surrounding questions are filtered through a preconceived dogma; the “correctness” and “universality” of their sacred strategy.
Rather than see these things as they are, or at least in a creative light, they see them as continuities of an omnipotent system. This creates a whole host of problems, only one of which is dogmatism.
There is no use in speculating about what strategy might be most correct considering we have not yet reached that conjunction in our development of the subjective forces. Any sort of premature “strategization” is really just speculation, as mentioned. Speculation is not scientific and it’s not empowering, it’s at best a self-confident rhetoric employed to “stir the base” of those who already are in agreement.
We need to build dual power. We need to stir the normal order of leftist politics. We need to upset the powers at be specifically within the realm of acceptable and correct discourse in progressive spaces. We need to do all of this and still ascertain that “mass support” which is critical to our project as a whole.
We need to act, but we also need to think.
No doubt, some will consider this a “step back” for the far-left as it works through the maze of political practice; however, calling our suggestion a “step back” would imply that we are in a more advantageous position. To assume such would be to deny the reality of our largely shrinking or marginalized significance within even progressive circles. The clear and distinct defeat of communist forces in more established political institutions such as those of student movements of the “good ole days”, should inspire us to rethink ‘how we do what we do’ and just what sort of things we are.
I am sure many will respond with hostility here. The real question is, who are you fooling?
Not the masses, who are often times alienated by our more esoteric and inaccessible elements. Not the state itself which clearly recognizes our own ineffectiveness. Not our cadre themselves, who see everyday the struggling position of our movement.
This isn’t revolutionary pessimism, this is revolutionary optimism; we can move forward from this ditch to entirely transform how we see ourselves in the contemporary era and act upon that understanding, but we have to be honest in doing so.
With all of this said, we wish no ill-will upon those who pursue the strategy of PPW even though we find it to be disagreeable and dogmatic in nature. Hopefully, the concerted efforts of JMP and his immediate allies can prove all of us wrong. Ultimately, we are on the same side: the side of liberation.
This means we can disagree and criticize and still hold solidarity with all of our comrades locked in the struggle. With respect to PPW itself, there are certainly lessons to be learned and perhaps even applied, as stated before. However, why limit ourselves with the dogmatism of a “universality”? The clear and asserted presumption of a “general theory of revolution”? It makes no sense.
We should be expanding our horizons and certainly to the point where we enjoy the “mass support” to take any of these endeavors to their serious ends. Let’s not close the door because we think we have learned enough.
With little left to say we should emphasize that we understand the position of JMP and those proponents of PPW as being genuine. We want revolution too.
But, the argument from “universality” is weak at best and stifling at worst. If the scattered and fragmented history of leftism in North America has shown us anything, then I would hope it would show that nothing which we can conceive as “universal” we should swallow without skepticism. The position of the universalist is also a tough one, at least in epistemology. All that is necessary for UPPW to be proven wrong is for there to be one instance where it failed by its own merit. Of course, proponents of UPPW would then suggest this was only a “poor application” and does not reflect upon the universality of the strategy itself.
This only problematizes revolutionary theory further, and with all due respect, is an absolutely undefendable position. If the failure of PPW is simply a poor application of principles and not reflective of any theoretical shortcomings, then we find ourselves in a matrix where “nothing is wrong” with regard to practice. All strategy becomes universal, instances of failure are simply poor manifestations of that universality which is immanent in everything we do.
Is that really the position we want to take? I would much rather accept failure as being genuine, at least in some regards, and repeated failure to be incrementally indicative. At least then we can form an understanding which is critical but constructive, not apologetic and useless.
Perhaps the most compelling argument for a strategy of PPW is urgency. No doubt, the accelerationist (as in, accelerate the development of capitalism so it “ends itself” essentially) nonsense of the 20th century has proven to be suicidal. Capitalism is going to kill all of us, unless we kill it first. There is really no way around that conclusion. With respect to the internal (in)consistency of capitalism itself, we must realize the grave contradictions it has developed with our natural environment and our own sustainability as a species on Earth make the revolutionary project one of life and death, literally. Not simply for those exploited, colonized, or oppressed peoples who face extermination, but the actual existence of the human being as a life-form.
In this sense, maybe PPW is a good strategy. Skip the critical thinking, skip the self-reflection, skip the conceptual juxtaposition, let’s just end capitalism and give this strategy a “shot”. These arguments from urgency are at least genuine and not clouded with some faux theory which only muddles the question of concrete action even further.
At least this advocacy is honest with regard to material circumstances. However, we are not so ready to commit ourselves merely out of urgency (although important).
Instead we should proceed with a revolutionary optimism in that we realize the broader state of affairs; we realize the urgency; we realize the contradictions; we realize what is indeed possible. This gives us an optimism which is healing and not colonizing. Our optimism pushes us further in that we have come this far and know only to go further. We use this optimism to utilize all the tools at our disposal. Every tactic which becomes useful. Every strategy that can be learned from. Every fight we know we can win. Our optimism is inclusive.
So perhaps the next revolution will be (if ever) one characterized by its difference rather than unity. It’s unity only given in the complete annihilation of existing oppression. Maybe a series of local successes, gains, or successful dual power; maybe a great loss followed by resounding uprisings, rebellions, united fronts; maybe a great moment of insurrection following an uenven march towards power.
Who is to say? Perhaps we will never know for certain but what we can safely assume is that Protracted People’s War is not universal.