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The Hard Sell of Revolution in the First World

Due to the default opportunism that festers at the centres of capitalism, organizing in the so-called first world possesses particular challenges that exist as stumbling blocks and/or anti-organizational principles that even the most radical marxist in theory might end up incorporating in their practice.  Whereas the challenges of organizing in the peripheries are indeed monumental––since revolutionaries in these contexts experience the entire brunt of imperialist super-exploitation––the fact that, as Amin once pointed out, the contradictions are clearer in these contexts due to the very fact of super-exploitation means that revolutionary consciousness also possesses a clarity.  A comrade of mine who was politicized in a third world context lamented the fact that his children were not interested in communism, despite his best efforts, whereas he grew up in a context where his entire family was politicized as communists due to their experience.

But here, at the centres of capitalism where a certain level of first world privilege mediates struggle, we encounter a very particular situation where, even if we do gravitate towards marxism, it is possible to lose ourselves in a widening gap between theory and practice.  One can be a marxist in theory, and maybe even endorse the most radical variants of marxism on paper, but avoid practicing this marxism in one's day to day life.  While the same gap most probably exists in the peripheries to some degree, here it is justified by the desire to maintain a certain level of privilege––there are material stakes involved.

One of those damn "first world problems" meme templates.

I have come to realize that the "hardest sell" of a revolutionary ideology committed to actually making revolution is the fact of what it means to make revolution.  That is, people who are willing to believe that marxism is correct on paper––even Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, at least theoretically––have a problem when it comes to moving from theory to practice.  Better to endorse communism in principle, abstractly and theoretically, and to refuse to take what one understands as theoretically correct to its logical outcome: figuring out how to actually make revolution.  Although marxism should be counted as meaningless without this practical aspect, those marxists who are not pursuing the practical activity of making revolution are legion––sure some of them pretend they are doing this by deferring it into the future, refusing to talk about strategy, wasting their time in groups that are no more than internet talk-shops, but this is simply a justification for refusing to cross the divide from theory to practice.  We know that practice is implied by the theory but we are bothered by this implication and so we satisfy its demand by making excuses: the time is not right, opportunism is too powerful so we should embrace it and wait for others to do our work for us, theories of strategy are flawed so let us become an internet talk-shop and just complain about theory, etc.

This "hardest sell" can be reduced to three characteristics of making revolution that are often difficult to accept: i) the fact that we are in it for the long haul, that we have to work to develop a revolutionary movement that is not based on immediate demands satisfaction; ii) the fact that, if we are even marginally successful, we will be targeted by the state and so we have to be prepared for this targeting; and iii) the fact that we need to develop a communist ethic, a revolutionary subjectivity of serving the people, that is at odds with the subjectivity bourgeois ideology has hammered into our being since birth.

These difficulties are, of course, encountered by revolutionary movements everywhere.  At the centres of capitalism, however, they are a "harder sell" because the muting of social contradictions due to imperialist super-exploitation can allow us to embrace a particular gap between theory and practice––to have our marxism in a manner that allows us to push these three characteristics to a future moment that might never arrive.  For movements that choose to embrace revolution in the global peripheries, on the other hand, the first two of these characteristics will be immediately encountered, will mediate one's decision to become a communist in the first place.  The third characteristic will also be encountered in a different manner since the contradictions of bourgeois ideology will be much more apparent since, in these regions, the capitalist mode of production is incomplete: other ideological problems might be more acute, such as the lingering residue of tributary ideology, but the bourgeois subject might not be the norm.

The first characteristic is especially significant at the global centres because embourgeoisification means that the accumulation of forces must proceed in a protracted manner: locating the germ of a the proletariat in the midst of a troubled social democracy, struggling against the urge to fight to maintain social democracy rather than fight against the system upon which this band-aid capitalism is dependent.  One of the reasons movementism is compelling, particularly in the first world, is because it allows activists to (sometimes) achieve apparent victories: liquidating oneself in a movement designed only to prevent a particular social service from being eradicated, dedicating oneself to even the most radical wing of the same social service sector, fighting to unify a disparate left that resists unification, submerging oneself in a union struggle against austerity, spending all of one's energy to promote a bourgeois party that is barely even social democratic… all of these avenues of dissent, and more, often have clear victories that can both easily understood and sometimes quickly achieved.  A project that is primarily dedicated to making communism a reality, and seeks to link all movements to this object, is something that requires years of hard work, focus, and dedication.

To realize that all of our efforts to bring communism into being might fail, that there will be as many setbacks as advances, that the historical course of this endeavour moves, as Engels once wrote, "in zig-zags" is not very exciting.  That is, while the prospect of communism is exciting, and we should always work to promote it as exciting, it is not something that will exist without the kind of single-minded dedication, strategy and planning that a communist project, unified in theory and practice, can only bring into being––and often very slowly.  (That whole "not a dinner party" thing Maoists like to quote is meant to indicate this fact.)  In such a context, potential cadre often drop out because they do not see, at the point in which they involve themselves now, commanded by a unified communist project, like the coalition demonstrations against imperialist wars and state repression; they refuse to recognize that they need to be part of the germ of these thousands––and tens of thousands––and help build a movement that they themselves might never have a chance to embrace in their lifetime.  In this context I think of older comrades who watched the mass movements of the past generation fall apart but who, unlike some of their counterparts who either became jaded reformists or movementists, realized that the collapse of these movements only meant that they needed to assess this collapse, learn from its mistakes, and move forward with the same goal in mind… I hope I never end up in this situation; I worry it would break me, I hope I would have the energy and consciousness to continue along the same path, figuring out what went wrong without dispensing of everything that was marginally successful in the first place.

The second characteristic, the unavoidable fact of state repression, is again a fact that is often accepted as such in the global peripheries (where revolutionary organizations are illegal, where you will be arrested and/or killed for choosing to be part of one) by those who decide to become communist in the first place.  To choose communist ideology in these contexts often means the very epistemic break that is denied in the first world where Mill's marketplace of ideas reigns supreme: bourgeois freedom of speech allows us to be communist, which is why so many academic marxists can be bought out from really practicing the revolutionary ideology they espouse as long as they are provided with jobs and the right to publish.  And many activists also don't have to really think about what state repression will really mean for a communist organization that is actually communist––that is, an organization that does not use the name to exist as a legal entity but one that, by necessarily being communist, must recognize that it seeks to overthrow and replace the existing captalist state of affairs.  We are used to being kennelled, arrested, and beaten by the state's guardians, but we are also used to a style of activism that allows us to rely on hard-working lefty lawyers and liberal judges sympathetic to the bourgeois right of assembly.

None of this is to say that we shouldn't use bourgeois rights to our advantage––or to justify some asinine ultra-leftism of revolutionary "purity" and ignore the hard work of those lawyers who are dedicated to helping activists––only that once we really think about what it means to be part of an actual communist project, dedicated to revolution and not reform, we will also have to face the fact that there will come a time, if we are even marginally successful, that the state will be within its bourgeois right to target us and declare our activities illegal.  In a first world context this becomes a serious and delayed epistemic break, a realization that this is not a game––particularly when the problem of embourgeoisification and the preponderance of the labour aristocracy means some of us do not have "nothing left to lose but our chains" and so might chose another avenue of activity, or just drop out altogether, rather than invite harm.

The third and final characteristic is one where the gap between theory and practice is demonstrated in a very poignant manner.  Some of us like to talk about the mass line, and how it's great to serve the people, but we're complete assholes––utter individualistic and self-serving people––in practice.  We talk of liberalism, we accuse other people of being liberal, but we are often incapable of recognizing that we default upon a liberal style of behaviour in our day-to-day practice, a behaviour that is extremely normative at the centres of global capitalism.  We can write long essays about criticism and self-criticism without having been involved in organizations that attempt to embed themselves int he masses and thus actually understand what it means to perform criticism and self-criticism.  This is why so many internet essays on the mass line, combatting liberalism, and criticism/self-criticism are so bloody abstract, oozing with self-satisfied bourgeois smarm, and providing any real concrete insights about a revolutionary ethic based on serving the people––because these experts aren't serving, and can't serve, the people they like to talk about in their abstract essays.  On the other hand, some of us theorize our mass line and serving the people in a way that resembles some sort of social service charity model (no militancy, no talk of communism) which is only slightly more useful in building a communist subjectivity as being someone who doesn't perform any mass work but likes to talk about it theoretically because at least one is doing mass work––just a kind of mass work that is not communist and thus can be performed very easily in a capitalist context.  Social welfare and church charities do this all the time.

Moreover, first world activists have often been socialized according to a particular variant of identity politics where self-righteousness is treated as a virtue.  Where "self-care" is seen as a political act in and of itself, thanks to a popular political platitude, despite the fact that it is a highly individualized withdrawing from politics (again, not to say that self-care is wrong only that it is not in itself radical––and there are a lot of necessary things that are not in themselves radical, such as drinking water).  Where we are taught to call-out and ostracize comrades without, for all that, realizing that all of us have erroneous ideas imparted by bourgeois ideology, even those from those sites of oppression that, yes, have historically suffered more thanks to this same ideology.  Point being, we tend to import this into our understanding of criticism/self-criticism rather than realizing that criticism/self-criticism implies unity, that even those doing the criticizing will also need to criticize themselves and only bring up this criticism so as to reconcile themselves with their comrades.  Such a practice cannot develop into a mass-line because it ends up defending a privileged knowledge, allowing those who understand the right phrases and words to maintain hegemony, and thus cannot deal with the fact that even the most advanced factions of the masses––those who have nothing left to lose but their chains––will also have a number of distorted ideas about the world, whatever their level of oppression and exploitation, but have not had the privilege to sift through these ideas as their petty-bourgeois counterparts have had.

When we realize that a communist subjectivity requires us to be critical of our own ideology, our own style of behaviour, and that we must also serve those comrades who have screwed up, we often find it difficult to reconcile ourselves with a communist a project.  We cannot break with our own bourgeois self, that same self that doesn't want to be involved in the long-haul and that cannot accept state repression.  Various tactics might be used to deal with this failure to shed this bourgeois way of being––such as a workerism that embraces some pure identity of exploitation against all sites of oppression, thus refounding an identity politics upon a perfect proletarian identity ("I make less than minimum wage, my assessment is the most correct!")––but if it cannot be broken then a revolutionary ideology cannot truly be embraced.

In the end, these three characteristics are such that either one walks away from revolutionary ideology altogether (or doesn't endorse it in the first place), or one embraces the gap between theory and practice by becoming a communist-in-practice––some form of movementism, an isolated intellectual of some sort, a cynical past revolutionary who persists only to prey on the revolutionary energy of another generation, and/or an internet marxist whose entire revolutionary activity is tantamount to only maintaining a blog or collective internet site.  But since the best revolutionary theory emerges from those movements that are practicing revolution––one of the key insights of historical materialism, a corollary of the axiom that class struggle is the motion of history––then, inversely, those whose practice is impoverished (i.e. primarily online, dispersed through movementist channels, reduced to speculation) will also have an impoverished theory.  Sadly this kind of impoverishment is not recognized by those who are responsible for its propagation, and they often act as if they are authoritative, regardless of their abstract understanding of struggle and despite what they claim about serving a people they have never bothered to encounter.  Similarly, those who refuse to accept the demands of communism, particularly in the first world, will also not be convinced that their practice is erroneous.  Dedicated to their own personal cache in the business of capitalism, if they wish to keep their marxism they will receive absolution in movementism, academia, and/or internet marxism.  The end result?  Embracing that first world default opportunism.


  1. pretty upsetting to read all one's political shortcomings explained so well in a single essay.

    1. Self-criticize and bring yourself to a higher unity of theory and practice, comrade. To despair isn't going to help either.

  2. Good stuff here. But I'd be interested in hearing you elaborate on what exactly constitutes proper communist organizing, especially in the context of how Trotskyist groups tend to stick to the line that engaging in reformist struggles will help accumulate forces (something that at least in the area I am in, they are doing a fucking terrible job of doing).

    1. Probably should have added more back-links since I have talked about what I believe "constitutes proper communist organizing" multiple times on this site from different angles. Also, my recent book *The Communist Necessity* was meant to provide answer to your question with broad brushstrokes (hahaha, yes I keep plugging my book), and we can also understand "proper communist organizing" by looking at a type of organizing that begins by accepting the three characteristics I discussed above. Thus, looking at organizations that are revolutionary and not just grouplets talking about revolution and wondering why the people aren't making it for them.

      But here are some more general thoughts on the idea. Proper communist organizing should be the kind of organizing that responds to the demand of making communism real. And this demand is accomplished in particular contexts first by providing a concrete analysis of the concrete situation (and this eliminates so many Trotskyist groups, internationals that have a very abstract and idealist conception of particular concrete contexts, applying concepts from, say, Britain to wherever they are), and then constructing an organization with a strategy designed to make communism. Vague, I know, but since I've written about this before on here in various ways, and I have a book, I figure that I've already done a lot to answer this question.

  3. Damn people and their abstract essays!

  4. do you think it is good tactics to turn a group to communism though it is not right now, or is it opportunism?
    I'm saying this because leftism is dying in my country, France. the so called socialist government is rightist as possible and even student movements don't do anything, or at least in my university)
    do you think groups like the ZADists could be useful in a revolution? they are in the long run, are targeted by the state ( and keep going. all they need is to developp, as you very well said, a communist ethics.
    there are some revolutiionnary parties in France but they are very small and don't attract the masses. wouldn't it be more efficient to try to turn some rebellious groups to communism than explain to so-called communists that parliamentarism is not a good idea?

    1. Since I don't live in France, and am not familiar with the social struggle there, I'm not the person you should ask for advice here. I am a little confused, though, as to why you seem to think (maybe I'm misreading?) I believe that rejecting parliamentarism and trying to turn some groups to communism are mutually exclusive. My position has always been to agitate openly for communism, but there are different strategies (and within these strategies *tactics*) in how to go about this.

      Never heard of these ZADists before, so thanks for the link. What do you think about the Tarnac 9 and the claims that the Invisible Committee is more significant than people give them credit for? I've always been under the impression that this is anarchist mythologizing, but I have a friend who is absolutely certain (mainly because he lived in France for a year and one person told him this, hahaha). Otherwise, when it comes to France all I know is the Maoist Communist of France [PCMF] and Voie Prolétarienne.

    2. You're not misreading, I badly expressed myself! I don't think we should completely reject parliamentarism either, it's just that the NPA (New anti-capitalist party) for example talks about revolution and what not but mostly wants people to vote for them (and not even good at it with that)

      I'm not really sure what is the difference between strategy and tactic?

      I hadn't heard a lot about Tarnac 9, so I made a research after your question, and so far I think they became a litle more important because the State was after them (they were tapped illegaly at some point!), and even liberal newspapers defended them and said their trial for "terrorism" was total BS. I'm not really sure their way of doing propaganda is very efficient, though? i mean sabotaging a few train equipements doesn't seem organized.

      The invisible commitee is interesting, but as they keep themselves anonymous (for good reasons, though) it's hard to know what they are actually doing. besides, in a translated interview from a german newpaper ( they sometimes answer in very vague terms to some questions. so maybe it's a lot of mythologizing as you said!
      anyways I wonder if most forms of anarchism are not dead-ends....

      thanks for the two parties names I'll have a look !


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