The war has broken out. Or, to be more precise, it has finally become visible enough that it is impossible to ignore. Nascent international rivalries; economic deadlocks; internal political drives – Marxists have been convinced that a new war is coming ever since the end of the last one (though it is clear that we did not exactly believe it, even if we wrote about it).
This remains a war between the Russian and Ukrainian states; there has been no direct military confrontation between Russia and the west, and economic sanctions as well as diplomatic posturing is not enough to change that fact. And yet, this is not what is important right now; whether the war involves the armies of the European and American countries is not the concern of this text, though it would be bad.
The escalation of the war has been discussed by many different people in many different contexts, ranging from just regular people living their everyday lives, to pundits, to politicians. Leftists have also discussed the idea: aside from the obvious examples of pro-NATO “leftists” who are filled with nothing other than a thirst for blood and joy that they can finally be openly in favor of imperialism, there are those who discuss political implications of a potential escalation of the war between Russia and Ukraine: the involvement of Europe, the involvement of China, or even nuclear strikes.
Now, every relatively-sane Marxist can see past the very simple and crude “accelerationist” argument: of course it is not the case that bad conditions, such as war, automatically lead to revolution. Most people who aspire to some idea of Leninism will speak of the necessity for a conscious party to turn the crisis into a revolution; others speak of the need for a broad, anti-war movement to turn “the masses” against the war, creating the basis for overthrowing the present state of affairs. In the destruction of the old, pacifist, ideal, “democratic” consensus, they see joy and hope – for the advancement of the revolution.
This idea, too, however, I must say is a horrid, deformed concept.
Months have passed in Ukraine. Decades in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more than a decade in Syria. What has been the product other than ashes? The civilians of the war-torn countries sure-as-hell do not hold illusions in bourgeois democracy: they are too busy struggling for everyday survival, worrying over family, and feeling bitterness and confusion. There is deprivation and unemployment – not in a way that drives the “workers” against the “bourgeoisie”, but in a way which makes people worry over whether or not tomorrow the factories will still be standing. Will people join your “party” when they are worried over paying protection money? Over some militia coming over to extort them again, or over them being disappeared by the government?
Months have passed, and we have seen no councils, no workers’ concerns, no independence. Is this because “the Russians”, the Iraqis, or even the Ukrainians are lazy? Their leftists aren’t active enough? Maybe it is due to their prejudices? How about Europe? Aside from strikes and protests in Greece, where is the mass, pacifist movement that will spawn the new world – other than in a few isolated sects holding up anti-war signs?
This isn’t blaming anyone. It isn’t calling anyone’s response inadequate. It is absolutely senseless to expect any sort of revolutionary activity anywhere when war crushes hope and replaces it with cynicism.
The idea that worsened conditions would aid revolutionary activity is quite an old one. Marx denounced it in his little text, “Political Indifferentism”; he mocked the idea of ignoring wage struggles and struggles against squalor in general, not just because he wanted to “trick” the workers into socialism by supporting these struggles, but also because ignoring these struggles would leave the workers deprived, starving, without education or the ability to emancipate themselves. Rosa Luxemburg spoke of the destructive effect that the war had had on the masses; Amadeo Bordiga literally listed out reasons behind why war damaged the work that revolutionaries carry out. And yet, is it not the case that all major revolutionary events have occurred in or as a result of wartime? Let us not kid ourselves into thinking that something like the Corbyn campaign could ever overshadow the Paris Commune or the Russian Revolution; the proletariat has rarely reached such levels of consciousness or self-activity, and both events happened as a result of military defeat. Spain is another case of this: Trotsky even said that the Spanish proletariat had reached a higher point than the Russian one ever did during its struggles in the late 1930’s, struggles that were occurring during a literal civil war. Our big theorist for these things: Lenin, said that the imperialist war could be transformed into a civil war between classes. It is clear that there is a link between bad conditions and revolution; and yet it is also clear that bad conditions do not necessarily help revolution. But what is this link, and how can we realistically apply it in a modern context of a century of defeats? This is the link I aim to reach in this text.
As with most of my texts, this aims to be useful for all “leftists”, because revolution cannot be a monopoly of people who have dug and dusted through volumes of theory. Part of the reason why I am writing this text is to describe more realistic applications of revolutionary theory, instead of fantasizing about “what will happen” without end. I hope to not just crudely describe things from an already-revolutionary perspective, but to – in classical Marxist fashion – derive the revolutionary perspective while describing the political effects of war.
I also do not claim to guess what the outcome of the Ukrainian war will be, nor do I demonize people for their actions, as long as they do not act to harm others. Politics is highly complicated, and when in doubt, keeping one’s humanity intact is more honorable than a million little adventurist decisions. This is written precisely with the civilians who are not fantasizing about red flags in mind, and motivated much more by my own little experience of a missile strike, than any abstraction in my head.
All of that aside, we must begin.
Collective Dreams and Nightmares
What is the basis of political action?
Politics is much, much more than voting. I am not saying this to crudely scream: “we must arm ourselves and get into the streets”; I am speaking very literally: the reasons behind the political events in a country, ideas present in a country’s population, even behind electoral results, are deeper than singular political campaigns. Let us look, first of all, at the idea of a political atmosphere: in some countries, politics are individualized and based on a personality contest between ultimately-detached celebrity-politicians, trying to sway as many of the millions of voters as possible. Average people, in this case, are detached; they see little direct connection to the state, aside from passive negativity or patriotism. There are atmospheres in which there is some sort of social consensus: people, even from disagreeing perspectives, have trust in the state, which is usually a small and tight-knit state in this scenario, and see the benefits from its apparatus, with politicians being “civil” and “patriotic” in their discourse. Then there are atmospheres of complete distrust in the state and community in general: all of these things and concepts are too grand and too alienated from me; I am left empty in my own atomized existence with its problems.
Some readers might notice that these “atmospheres” (in reality, there is no better term to use here other than the neologism “vibe”) can coexist: a part of the media can pretend like we are in a world of social peace; some in the population can feel estranged and confused to the point of following celebrity politics; some might be so estranged that they actively distrust community. But, generally, every cohesive nation with its own media, oppressed class, state, and so on, will be floating around one atmosphere at a time: America, in many ways, can be described by these cynical, detached celebrity politics, with elements of complete anti-politicism in much of the population. It would be wrong to characterize these atmospheres merely as illusions that state and bourgeois forces create to keep the people in check; the atmospheres are the end product of millions of little situations which influence the mood, the hope, the prevailing temperature amongst the population. Art and media reflect these things in their presumptions: in a world of economic hope and growth, it makes a lot more sense to have a television show about a prosperous family than a show with satire about low pensions.
The “atmosphere” or approach towards the state being negative is not necessarily revolutionary. People can be angry and hopeless, and even mocking towards the state of affairs (including towards politicians and the leading political parties) without even thinking to act: the presumption in the population is not just “things are going bad”; it is “things are going bad, and politics [summarized in the minds of the masses by the state] will do nothing to solve them”.
An atmosphere of social peace, similarly, is not necessarily counter-revolutionary. People can have ideas and presumptions about the state and democracy that are based on falsehoods; however, revolutionaries can still mobilize these little shreds of hope, no matter how misguided they are, towards demands and problems that the bourgeoisie and its political apparatus can simply not even come close to solving. In an environment of a democratic upheaval, revolutionaries can point out how their politics are more adequate democracy, freedom; how class action and organization from below is a more unfettered and useful struggle than that taken now. It is easier to do this when hopes for something exist, than when they do not exist.
This is not to say that a quaint little social-democracy is the best country for a revolution to happen in; states like these operate to remove any sort of reason for revolution by coddling and lying to the masses, crushing them in official state unions and alienated state benefits. My point is that any hope or action that the masses have is not based on their hopes for the future in general being crushed; it is based on their hopes being redirected from a middle class, petty bourgeois politics, to a realistic, believable revolutionary politics. The believability of revolutionary politics is another question right now, but the basis is belief in some action in the first place.
Let us look at conditions produced by warfare:
-Bloodthirsty nationalism: people, at least initially, are mobilized to forget about their hopes and dreams, and focus purely on the hatred of their fellow humans, as well as belief in some grand state machine. Patriotism, a natural byproduct of any state (i.e.: god), as Bakunin would argue, runs high in everybody. Any politics on the basis of class is forgotten, and so are politics generally; there are only “the people”, which are protected and represented by “the leader”, or “the state”.
-Hopelessness: either because their patriotic illusions are shattered by enough time, or because they did not see much justice in this war, or because they have lost the war, horribly, people are simply pushed into horror – deprivation, squalor, tragedies. Personal lives are shattered; personal wants are forgotten; even sleep is now difficult. Hope is lost not just in the currently-existing state, but also in the idea of large action and change in general – i.e.: community.
-Material difficulties: other than the psychological effects and the direct effects of war, there is a change in the very way the economy operates. In “eternal wars”, especially between militias, mercenaries – i.e.: forces that are informal and mafia-like, crime and petty production dominate. Gangs and terrorist forces become a key force in society, as do paternalistic-familial structures in a few cases; the “revolutionary student” life just suddenly becomes absolutely impossible.
All of these things, however, may be summarized in this: the prevalence of cynicism. Production becomes a cynical and atomized thing; defense becomes cynical; humanity, too. War involving ethnic cleansing destroys any sort of humanity in either side; war involving religious terrorism and paternalism bases itself upon anti-human coordinates innately. It is not that “the bourgeois state” is cynical and acting against the proletariat; the proletariat itself is transformed into a huge, cynical mass by these conditions. Without political hope in anything; without concerns other than survival. In some cases, wars literally destroy the proletariats of the nations involved if capitalism is not developed enough; workers die, or are liquidated into militias, or leave – maybe some even go back to farming.
Instead of having a collective atmosphere of social peace, or of alienation, or of hope, we suddenly have a collective atmosphere of hopelessness and collapse; for some, we might have an atmosphere of familial and religious revival, but that is nothing other than a rekindled feudalism. For revolutionaries, whatever form the new atmosphere may assume is meaningless; for all practical purposes, it is a completely hopeless thing.
The more escalated and the more destructive a war is, the more these effects are heightened. The more a war tarnishes its own population, the less revolutionary potential can be derived from it; if a war is unjust but does not destroy the masses, then there is room for activity. If, on the other hand, a war is going to spew nationalist venom into even more minds, then there is no concrete potential in it at all. And whichever case of these is true, our policy remains an “anti-war” policy.
Realism in Revolution
I do not want to bombard the reader with the same points I have bombarded them in in my old texts, such as “Why Lenin?” or “Luxemburg versus the Falsifiers”. Defining revolutionary situations is a very interesting and very important thing, but I will not go into the details here; my goal is to more specifically link in the previous argument about war to revolution.
For a revolution to occur, class must exist as a concept; class organizations, ranging from conscious parties to economic organizations to even forestry associations, must exist wherever and however appropriate. After all, these organizations are not just conveyor belts to the revolution; they must have a functional purpose and base behind them, even if we speak of our program which goes further than anything that was ever proposed on earth before. This is doubly-true in wartime, where absolutely any politics we carry out must be serious or linked in with functionality:
Where conditions exist, fighting for national self-determination on a basis of class independence (and in unity with all forces fighting for a democratic program without a bourgeois state apparatus). What does this mean? It means fighting for the freedom of a nation, perhaps from foreign occupiers, perhaps from already-existing, pre-war oppression, without surrendering to a bourgeois political party or movement; it means trying our best to lead the struggle for self-determination, and continuing to struggle for it when it comes into contradiction with the presence of bourgeois forces within it. It means doing what the revolutionaries in Cuba did – despite errors and misgivings – by not crudely splitting up the revolution into “national” and “socialist” phases, but by following every struggle of the masses to its natural conclusion, which is that of proletarian rule.
Where conditions exist, fighting against the war on a basis of class independence, demanding democracy – the unconditional abolition of all alienated state apparatuses behind the war and the repression that came with it – and peace, in unity with all forces acting for it, and with complete support being provided to the proletariat’s attempts at self-rule and self-advancement in negation of the bourgeoisie. No legitimacy to a bourgeois government, no matter how “democratic”; support for conscious proletarian rule.
When the proletariat deserts, fighting for it to keep its arms; when states blunder, stripping down illusions in them, and agitating for action on a class basis. The ultimate demand present in every single program must be the rule by the oppressed to smash all oppression; any other basis renders bourgeois states legitimate.
Revolutionaries and internationalists exist not in spite of humanity, but precisely because of it, and it is our task to humanize things which have been – for a very long time – dominated by capital and states. Whether we carry out the first steps of this huge process – by advocating democratization of the state, by pointing out class interests, by concretely creating class organizations – or complete it – by smashing the bourgeois state alongside the masses, internationalizing the emancipation, and removing any last shreds of alienation in the economy and society through social planning and initiative – or even get stuck in between, the principle of humanity does not weaken; it strengthens.