The newest Star Wars film gives us a lot to think about, and potentially many lessons from which we can learn or adapt a few things for our purposes; among them, the fact that they will milk this franchise until the end of capitalism. Yet it also provides more useful discourse and examples. Of course we should not become too infatuated with film as some perfect facsimile of reality—and certainly not with a film like The Last Jedi—but nevertheless it provides us with examples, points of departure, and visual aids to accompany experience and theory in the real revolutionary movement. With so many things to choose from in this rather long film, we shall stick specifically to its underlying discourse on principled leadership and transition.
In many ways you could suggest that the whole film is about transition, an arc from the past to the future, both in terms of generations and in historical narrative. This is traditional in Star Wars films with the theme of apprentice and master, and the conflict bred therein, as well as the consequences of losing them. In this story it is both a transition from the old to the new in terms of age and ideas, happening both in what remains of the jedi order and in the resistance: Rey taking over from Luke, Poe, Rose and Finn from Leia. In this transition we are taught many difficult lessons, as the seemingly unstoppable First Order gains momentum against a dwindling opposition, and the “dark side” begins to loom over the light.
What this affirms is that the youth will lead, whether we like it or not, whether we are prepared or not, and that we must be the main source of locomotion for the historical forces coming to a head. In the film this is underscored by the bravado of Poe Dameron in his daring attacks on the First Order, and the heroic bomber pilot Paige Tico, as well as the stubborn passion and overconfidence of Rey, Rose and Finn. This is the kind of energetic quality of the youth, which is committed out of necessity to the survival of the resistance. However, as the story shows us, and as our own experience in reality proves, this kind of energy cannot be sustained without principled leadership. Simply because we must lead, does not mean that we are or will be prepared to lead.
It is this lack of experience and principled leadership ability that leads them to the many dead-ends they encounter throughout the story. Paige is killed for this reason, and Poe is rightly demoted for his lack of leadership and discipline. Although our generation and class must lead, it cannot as of yet, and must be developed, hammered out and equipped with principles and discipline; it must first be constituted. Without these necessary components, there is nothing to sustain the energy brought up by the potential leaders in the younger generation, and no solid framework with which to build from and ultimately rupture with the failures of the past. Poe and others saw opportunities for heroism, and wrongly conflated that with the truly mundane and restrained reality of protracted struggle. What this amounted to was an adventuristic impulse, incompatible with the long struggle for victory.
The real struggle for victory relies on heroism and passion, yes, but also on the ability to choke down impulse to think of the strategic necessities for success and survival. We must escape the fallacious notion that all sacrifices are heroic in the sense we’re given in epic stories, or the idea that to sacrifice is inherently noble. Sacrifice should be for victory, and can only serve victory when coupled with a deep understanding of responsibility and principle. Sometimes these pathways are hardly glamorous, like the retreat from the resistance cruiser to the fortified base, and then from the base through the tunnels to the falcon. These retreats, and an awareness of when to retreat, are just as necessary as a sense for when to boldly attack the enemy. We must constantly and carefully weigh our options, and accept that the ideal alternatives may not always exist. Lenin deals with this very problem in Left-Wing Communism:
The years of reaction (1907-10). Tsardom scored victory. All the revolutionary and opposition parties have been defeated. Depression, demoralization, splits, discord, renegacy, pornography take the place of politics. There is an increased drift toward philosophical idealism; mysticism becomes the shell of counter-revolutionary sentiments. But at the same time, it is precisely this great defeat that gives the revolutionary parties and the revolutionary class a real and very valuable lesson, a lesson in historical dialectics, a lesson in the understanding of the political struggle and in the skill and art of waging it. One gets to know one’s friends in times of misfortune. Defeated armies learn well.
The revolutionary parties must complete their education. They have learned to attack. Now they have to realize that this knowledge must be supplemented with the knowledge how to retreat properly. They have to realize—and the revolutionary class is taught to realize it by its own bitter experience—that victory is impossible unless they have learned both how to attack and how to retreat properly. Of all the defeated opposition and revolutionary parties, the Bolsheviks affected the most orderly retreat, with the least loss to their “army,” with its core best preserved, with the least (in respect to profundity and irremediability) splits, with the least demoralization, and in the best condition to resume the work on the broadest scale and in the most correct and energetic manner. The Bolsheviks achieved this only because they ruthlessly exposed and expelled the revolutionary phrase-mongers, who refused to understand that one had to retreat, that one had to know how to retreat, and that one had absolutely to learn how to work legally in the most reactionary parliaments, in the most reactionary trade unions, cooperative societies, insurance societies and similar organizations.
This is as true of the situation the Bolsheviks found themselves in as it is for us, and is demonstrated many times in Last Jedi. If the resistance was to burn itself out in flashy attacks, ones which were as bold as they must be, as all rebellion is, then all would still be lost. Yet, if they can retreat effectively, abandon their posts and cede precious ground to the enemy, only to emerge victorious in the end of the protracted struggle, then they have won. The same is true of reality. How many lives have been extinguished uselessly in bold “final stands” when retreat could have promised a later victory?
We cannot afford to throw leadership to the wind and rely on pure energy, that was demonstrated in May of 1968 in France, and we saw where it led. Boldness, passion and energy must be matched with discipline, principle and strategy. When we cede political responsibility and principles to raw energy, we begin to resent those who enforce discipline, and tend to see in the ponderous folds of strategy the bare threads of capitulation. This was certainly the case in the film, as it deliberately pushes the audience to Poe’s perspective, resenting the Vice Admiral’s apparent cowardice. The film forces us, as does Lenin and reality from time to time, to retreat from this position, and to realize the structure in it. That is not to say that real cowardice and capitulationism does not exist, it certainly does and we have witnessed far too much of it in the last half of the 20th century. It is only from a place of principles and discipline that we can begin to discern one from the other, and carry on in the constitution of ourselves and our generation as the necessary energetic leadership of proletarian revolution.
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