Today we celebrate the centennial of the Great October Socialist Revolution, the watershed of the subsequent era of communist power that really began in 1917, invigorated once more by the second world war, reached new heights in 1949 and 59, and petered out long before the millennium with the fall of the decrepit Soviet Union, and the success of the counter-revolution in China. We, as communists, are heir to the lessons of October, the subsequent failures, as well as the inspiring triumphs of real socialists and anti-imperialists since. After one hundred years, our task remains the same; to defeat imperialism and seize state power. Although these tasks remain the same, the world of 2017 is drastically different from that of 1917.
Directionlessness, the social complications of parasitism, and the balance of powers in the core militate against us, but the international situation, including multipolarity, the weakening of the neoliberal world order, and the specter of imperialist war, ensure that the current epoch will be one of immense crisis for western imperialism; for at the precise moment when it would prefer a united front against the rising great powers and against the loss of markets and territory, it finds itself embroiled in scandal, crises of confidence, and the hiss of reaction in its rearguard.
A Revolutionary Situation?
Lenin identified three broad indications of a revolutionary situation, the first two of which came to be abbreviated, “those on the bottom cannot live, and those on top cannot rule, as before.” These two tenets have often been taken by opportunists and vulgar Marxists to indicate any and all conjunctures as revolutionary ones, for in the era of neoliberalism there is always one crisis or another. They forget, of course, that these are also symptoms of mass reaction and crisis in general, which is by no means always an opening for revolutionary communists. Lenin’s third condition, that the workers begin to engage in a historically intense period of class struggle, is simply not present even by the admission of the revisionists and opportunists.
A symptom of the general hollowing out of the neoliberal world-order is the decline of the trade union as a stage of class conflict. In the era of moribund neoliberalism, workers in the west, and especially in amerika, see themselves at war, not principally with the bourgeoisie, but with the world proletariat, personified by migrant workers, immigrants and refugees. Its historical position as a recipient of super-wages and a consumer of global surplus value has equipped the working classes of the western world with a trade-union consciousness writ large, namely class-national consciousness—that of reactionary middle classes between the world proletariat and monopoly capital with much to lose. When this aristocracy of labor is roused, as it sometimes is, to political action, it is to demand exclusion—for peoples, for products, for destinations and sources of trade. So it is not a surprise that the mass of workers show no great signs of moving, even in a time of obvious crisis—they have ceded their role as regulators of foreign bodies to the reactionary u.$. administration. This is why, although he typically carries overall approval ratings in the 30’s, Trump’s immigration policies receive approval ratings in the high 60’s and 70’s.
But this is the “mass base” of the opportunists and the right-deviationists. When a principled communist speaks of the masses, they refer to those “lower and deeper” sections, mainly among the oppressed nations, who interact on a daily basis with the principal contradiction—that existing between imperialism and the oppressed nations. If we take these as the principal seeds out of which to grow a mass base, then we see, even without the guiding force of a vanguard party, struggle among oppressed nationalities growing for tumultuous. Since Ferguson, the liberals have not been successful in their attempts to suppress growing militancy in black activism, and migrant workers’ strikes and prison demonstrations grow more frequent. That said, no amount of semi-militancy can replace revolutionary organization. On the resentment against centralization that characterizes social movements today, Black Panther Sekou Odinga observes:
If you don’t organize for that change, you won’t make that change. It ain’t gonna just happen because you say, “No justice, no peace!” you know, or “We want food” or “We want an end to police brutality.” None of that becomes a reality without organizing to make that a reality. So I’m saying that they have to organize. They have to organize. They have to organize. There’s just no way of getting around it.
But even as naked white supremacy grows fashionable, we still see nothing like the new afrikan, chicanx, native and Boricua movements of the 60’s and 70’s. Even among the oppressed nations within the core, struggle can be muted by a good stock market and relatively low unemployment rate.
The crisis of this new epoch of moribund neoliberalism has not yet become economic in the vulgar sense. In fact, the great crash that did so much to eradicate amerikan and european confidence in neoliberalism has given way to an unusually prosperous period, given the predictions of economists and revolutionaries since 2008. Earnings rise, the stock market creeps up month after month to new highs. Although reaction is on the march, western schemes of global rule are greying, and popular confidence in government, democracy and post-war values is drying up, the market is not particularly phased. Accumulation is not threatened by a possible impeachment of the u.$ president, nor apparently by the secession of Catalonia, nor reaction in Hungary, Poland, nor the threat of war with North Korea. So although the politicians run about with their hair aflame, it seems that the rulers are ruling as they always have, for now it is only the state that sweats. Capital is not yet threatened by the prospect of reaction in the powerful core countries like france or germany or the u.$. There is no telling when this will change, and without significant changes in our political infrastructure we stand little chance to intervene.
The communist movement does not yet have the hegemonic position to even declare the formation of a party—a real party capable of seizing state power. There are some small pre-party formations who can be taken seriously, but the declaration of a party at this stage would be premature to the point of ridicule, and most of those formations who intend on creating such a party in the future know this. This requires power, and in Leninist practice power on a systematic scale is known as hegemony.
Hegemony is a component of Marxist thought which emphasizes the ideological and political independence of proletarian parties and their class allies, operating outside the logic and structures of the ruling classes, in effect preparing this historic bloc for state power.
Hegemony as a concept begins in earnest during the Second International, drawing on two long-standing pillars of the Marxist method—the 11th Thesis on Feuerbach and the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: That “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it,”; and that “No social formation is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society,” respectively. From the 11th Thesis is derived a philosophy of praxis, that the world can only be transformed through action informed by successive investigation; and from the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy is derived the principle that the historic epoch must proceed ‘economically’ and ‘socially’, coming into its own historically before maturing the very circumstances which will lead to its negation—as Marx says:
Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.
This, in the hands of Lenin, became an emphasis on the independence of the working-class and its party, the force which leads a counter-hegemonic bloc. The most important error in this regard, to Lenin, is falling to ‘economism’ in both philosophy and economy. In philosophy, economism is an over-emphasis of the base (i.e. vulgar materialism) which sees the superstructure arising directly, like clockwork, from the base. In economy, economism was represented by reformism and petty wage struggles. As Lenin says:
Everywhere and always, opportunism clutches at the minute, at the moment, at today, for it is unable to appreciate the connection between “yesterday” and “tomorrow”. Marxism, on the other hand, demands a clear awareness of this connection, an awareness that expresses itself not in words alone but in deeds. That is why Marxism cannot be reconciled with the liquidationist trend in general, and particularly with the denial of hegemony.
Lenin’s disdain for reformism, for economism, is rooted in the necessity to decouple the masses from the logic and sway of the ruling system, from capitalism; to groom this new politically active and aware class—now deserving of the title of proletariat—for state power. In this vein, Lenin says:
From the standpoint of Marxism the class, so long as it renounces the idea of hegemony or fails to appreciate it, is not a class, or not yet a class, but a guild, or the sum total of various guilds. […] … [F]or it is the consciousness of the idea of hegemony and its implementation through their own activities that converts the guilds as a whole into a class. And once they have grown to the level of a “class”, no external conditions, no burdens, no reduction of the whole to a fraction, no rejoicing on the part of Vekhi, and no pusillanimity on the part of the opportunists, can stifle this young shoot.
We see from the above that Lenin’s conception of class, or at least the formation of the historic class, the proletariat, cannot be defined simply by location in the social division of labor. Such a definition of proletariat which hinges solely upon wages and social position is therefore economist and is subsequently rejected. It is this ‘subjective’ nature, the active building of the historic block of the proletarian party and its allies prepared by the ‘objective’ historic development of capitalism which has made it possible. So energetically did Lenin agitate against reformism and liquidationism as the key anti-hegemonic trends which render the overthrow of the ruling classes impossible, he extended his condemnation to the very workers who engage in such struggles:
In the general and world-historical sense, it is true that in a backward country like China, the coolie cannot bring about a proletarian revolution; however to tell the workers in the handful of rich countries where life is easier, thanks to imperialist pillage, that they must be afraid of “too great” impoverishment, is counter-revolutionary. It is the reverse that they should be told. The labour aristocracy that is afraid of sacrifices, afraid of “too great” impoverishment during the revolutionary struggle, cannot belong to the Party.
Antonio Gramsci, major theorist and one-time leader of the Italian Communist Party, expanded upon hegemony, further identifying a rejection of hegemonic leadership of an actively transforming working-class over a revolutionary bloc with opportunism and liquidationism (a path his party embarked on just after his death.)
Gramsci posited that, since a hegemonic bloc of classes, led by the bourgeoisie, instills the logic and direction of society, mediating all contradictions in their favor by the common acceptance (i.e. instilling consent) of their values and logic as ‘common sense’, capitalism could not be superseded by economistic demands, by the logic of wage-labor and bourgeois fairness. It is Gramsci who posits that this ‘cultural hegemony’ must be combated by counter-hegemony, that only a working-class bloc led not by economist demands, but a genuine transcendent ideology could overthrow capitalism.
Gramsci calls the two ways in which the struggle to overturn capitalist rule is carried out the War of Position and the War of Maneuver. The war of maneuver takes as its guiding principle an overemphasis, an economistic emphasis, on the economic weakness of capitalism:
The immediate economic element (crises, etc.) is seen as the field artillery which in war opens a breach in the enemy’s defenses—a breach sufficient for one’s own troops to rush in and obtain a definitive (strategic) victory, or at least an important victory in the context of the strategic line.
Commenting on Luxemburg’s pamphlet Mass Strike, Party and Trade Unions, Gramsci identified this tendency of overemphasis on economic crisis as an “’economistic’ and spontaneist prejudice” which disregarded the long cultural and political work which must be done before the hegemony is displaced sufficiently by counter-hegemony that the state may be assailed once and for all. Gramsci supposes that the reason this type of action succeeded in Russia, yet failed everywhere else, is because Russia, unlike Germany, was unprotected by any real ‘civil society’, the main ‘consent’ superstructure of the state.
“In Russia, the state was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous”; in the West, there was a proper relation between state and civil society. In this way the Tsarist regime had no popular, cultural ‘insulation’ from the discovery of its obvious oppressive apparatuses.
What Gramsci proposes, given the failure and deviation represented by the war of maneuver, is the war of position. Gramsci offers the metaphor of the Russian army’s penetrations into Austrian territory. Austria’s backward frontiers and under-equipped army were very easy to challenge for the Russians, yet when they used the same ‘incursion’ tactics against the Germans, or even Austrian units with German commanders, they failed miserably. This metaphor shows how one circumstance, the war of maneuver, works against another poor and under-equipped enemy (much like the ‘un-insulated’ Tsarist state), but always fails against the advanced industrial enemy (the ‘civil society’, the advanced capitalism).
The same reduction must take place in the art and science of politics, at least in the case of the most “advanced” states, where ‘civil society’ has become a very complex structure and one which is resistant to the catastrophic ‘incursions’ of the immediate economic element (crises, depressions, etc.). The superstructures of civil society are like the trench-systems of modern warfare. In war it would sometimes happen that a fierce artillery attack seemed to have destroyed the enemy’s entire defensive system, whereas in fact it had only destroyed the outer perimeter; and at the moment of their advance and attack the assailants would find themselves confronted by a line of defense which was still effective. The same thing happens in politics, during great economic crises.
The war of position, says Gramsci, is the “only form possible in the West,” where “the social structures [are] of themselves still capable of becoming heavily armed fortifications.” Gramsci’s answer to insurrection, to economism, to opportunism, is vigilant counter-hegemony, counter-culture. Dual-power, as described by Lenin, amplified to snake its way through every orifice of the society, from labor organizations to schools to the media. This is done based on the particular condition and landscape of the country—“a reconnaissance of the terrain and identification of the elements of trench and fortress represented by the elements of civil society, etc.” When this has been done, when the counter-hegemony begins to spatially displace the “civil society” and the hegemony of the ruling classes, then the State, to defend its support structures and confront the counter-class power, responds “with controls of every kind” including open warfare. It is this phase which marks the death of the old power, and the rise of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
The Condition and Tasks of Struggle
On this front, one cannot even say that, in terms of 1917, that we are approaching 1905. In 1905 there was at least that revolutionary nucleus that had congealed around What is to be Done? two years before. We have seemingly endless work before us, but seriously finite time. We approach quicker a situation reminiscent more of 1933 than 1905, to say nothing of 1917. We are not yet on the cusp of any great victories, be sure of that. But neither is neoliberalism. Secession, open white supremacy, a flailing impotency in the face of multipolarity, these are all emblematic of the dilapidation of ‘civil society’. This epoch will be marked by a transition to bitter politics, a supreme cynicism in the great mass of westerners, and a continued decline of western imperial reach. A party capable of seizing power must first show itself capable of navigating the terrain of this new epoch. And for it to demonstrate this, it must show itself. All efforts of anti-revisionists, Maoists, third-worldists, and concerted social nationalists among the oppressed nations, ought to be conducted with a centripetal character, that is, always with the thought of the potential party.
And regarding such a party-building project, the revolutionary forces must make themselves aware of the unsavory compromise that it will certainly entail; unity will cost us, but this is the condition for power. We must be willing to take it where we can get it, and to create a party which operates on the principles of democratic centralism, but at the same time—in Maoist fashion—accepts the reality of an intense internal ideological struggle which must be waged at all times between the public factions that will certainly exist. To that end we must set about the preliminary work necessary to build unity between the organizations that may one day make up the political blocs and factions in a future vanguard party. In doing this, our primary concern must be those cardinal principles that are entirely non-negotiable, with all other aspects of the program on the table. We must remember that we can only play those cards that we have in our hand, and without hegemonic power, we do not get to make the decisions we would like to. Compromises will be demanded of us, and if we fail in our task of mediating the creation of a substantial political bloc, they may be severe. It is important that these blocs be constructed because it is through them that the intense political struggle within the party will be waged, and our overall revolutionary program will be built.
So to conclude, the current crisis, being confined largely to the workings of the state and subjective struggle, does not yet impact the wallets of the masses enough to elicit violent responses on a systematic scale; the workers of the advanced countries, when they do move, tend toward semi-fascist praxis, which they have ceded to populists as their surrogates. Neoliberalism, though fraying, still reigns, but the power of the neoliberal bureaucrats that govern the affairs of the atlantic bourgeoisie are threatened and afraid of unrest, but even more afraid of losing power to isolationists and reactionaries. Imperialist war may break out at any time, and there are no parties yet existing that can begin the subjective work of producing mass consciousness and preparing the seizure of state power by congealing those subjective forces into a historic proletarian bloc. This party must come about, but before this can happen, the subjective struggle must be raised to a qualitatively new level. A tireless struggle, incorporating propaganda, political economy, cultural work and political organization must lay the groundwork for a party to arise when the condition demand it. The party may not arise any time soon, but to fulfill the subjective prerequisites for its existence must be undertaken by every serious communist immediately.
Lenin, May Day Action by the Revolutionary Proletariat
Gramsci: The War of Position and the War of Manoeuvre , in The Antonio Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings, 1916-1935 (NYU Press: New York) 2000, Sec. VII.
Unedited versions of the sections on hegemony and the war of position/manoeuvre, can be found, with a different translation, in Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (International Publishers, New York) 2012, sec. II.2., pp. 229-240.