‘Exceptional Situations’ and Revolutionary Politics

What is needed is furious energy… the evil today is our inertness, our doctrinaire spirit, our learned immobility, and our senile fear of initiative.

Vladimir Lenin, To the Combat Committee of the Saint Petersburg Committee

World history would indeed be very easy to make, if the struggle were taken up only on condition of infallibly favorable chances. 

Karl Marx, Letter to Ludwig Kugelman

Throughout the events of May ‘68, the PCF and CGT were critical of the students’ actions, and defended their conservative attitude with the argument that ‘the time wasn’t right’ for a revolution. At this point, the PCF had already decided that their cleanest path to state power was through the parliamentary system, and they believed aggressive action would damage their goals. While I am aware of the dangers of pursuing revolutionary action, such as the massacre of thousands of workers in the Paris Commune, this does not justify the denunciation of the student movement by the PCF. While May ‘68 is not analogous to the Russian 1905 Revolution for a variety of reasons, mainly the failure of the movement to coalesce into a larger force in the years after, we can compare the attitude of the PCF with that of Georgi Plekhanov, the elder Russian Marxist, following the 1905 Revolution. Plekhanov said, “The political strike, inopportunely begun… the strength of the proletariat proved inadequate for victory. It was not difficult to foresee this. And therefore it was wrong to take up arms.”1 

We can contrast the patriarchal and conservative attitudes of the PCF and Plekhanov with that of Marx and Lenin. In 1871, the Parisian working class formed a commune following the defeat of the French state in the Franco-Prussian War. Prior to the formation of the Commune, Marx was wary that the French working class taking revolutionary action would lead to a defeat, saying, “the French working class moves, therefore, under circumstances of extreme difficulty. Any attempt at upsetting the new government in the present crisis, when the enemy is almost knocking at the doors of Paris, would be a desperate folly.”2 However, after the formation of the Commune six months later, Marx had nothing but praise for the French workers: 

“What elasticity, what historical initiative, what a capacity for sacrifice in these Parisians! After six months of hunger and ruin, caused rather by internal treachery than by the external enemy, they rise, beneath Prussian bayonets, as if there had never been a war between France and Germany and the enemy were not at the gates of Paris. History has no like example of a like greatness.”3

Unfortunately, Marx’s initial prediction was right as the Commune was brutally crushed by the French military about a month later, culminating in the massacre of thousands of workers. As Lenin points out in The State and Revolution

“Although the mass revolutionary movement did not achieve its aim, he [Marx] regarded it as a historic experience of enormous importance, as a certain advance of the world proletarian revolution, as a practical step that was more important than hundreds of programmes and arguments. Marx endeavored to analyze this experiment, to draw tactical lessons from it and re-examine his theory in the light of it.”4

Returning to the Russian Revolution of 1905, Lenin also took great inspiration from the workers and was completely prepared to shift the party’s strategies and political orientation due to the lessons learned from the events. Prior to 1905, the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) was composed primarily of “committee members.” In his account of the construction of the RSDLP and the Bolsheviks, Tony Cliff says, “the personification of Lenin’s concept of the party member, as described in What Is to Be Done? or in his arguments during the second Congress and its aftermath, was the Bolshevik committeeman. He was the professional revolutionary par excellence, leading the life of a hunted agitator and organiser.”5 However, the Revolution of 1905 prompted Lenin to want to change the composition of the party by introducing greater numbers of workers into the committees. Thus, at the Third Party Congress of 1905, Lenin and fellow Bolshevik Bogdanov proposed a resolution to:

“Make every effort to strengthen the ties between the party and the masses of the working class by raising still wider sections of proletarians and semi-proletarians to full Social Democratic consciousness, by developing their revolutionary Social Democratic activity, by seeing to it that the greatest possible number of workers capable of leading the movement and the party organisations be advanced from among the mass of the working class to membership on the local centres and on the all-party centre through the creation of a maximum number of working-class organisations adhering to our party, by seeing to it that working-class organisations unwilling or unable to enter the party should at least be associated with it.”6 

This resolution prompted fierce debate, as many were concerned that the introduction of workers into the party would weaken the strength of socialist ideology within, and ironically enough, cited Lenin’s own arguments from What is to be Done?, written three years prior. Cliff argues that these committeemen opposed the introduction of workers because it would weaken their own position within the party, and they shut down the resolution. Regardless, Lenin believed that the 1905 Revolution, spearheaded by the newly established workers’ soviet, provided the model for how a revolution in Russia would unfold. Lenin felt that the party was lagging behind the activity of the masses, which is why he felt that the RSDLP should alter its own composition. Lenin’s “basic rule was that the needs of the struggle took priority over everything else,” which is why he was constantly willing to shift strategies and alter organizational forms.7 

Regardless, it’s perfectly possible to be skeptical of the long term prospects of a movement, while also supporting and learning from it. As Marx says in a letter in 1875, “Every step of [the] real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.”8 If the Marxist conception of politics is one where knowledge is produced through the experience and analysis of class struggles, then this must be the source of political strategies and tactics. Just because an organization has a well established strategy, organizers should always be ready to adjust in the face of political events. Rather than asking what movements ought to do, communists must investigate what the movement represents within the conjuncture. Through a political sequence, we can learn which sections of the masses are ready to fight, what tactics work, and how the state responds to a crisis. This is why Lenin says, in 1917, that  “during a revolution, millions and tens of millions of people learn in a week more than they do in a year of ordinary, somnolent life.”9 Theory must make sense of political events, rather than dogmatically imposing itself onto them.  

Marx and Lenin’s attitudes towards revolutionary uprisings is thus one of inspiration, and each thinker would significantly alter their theories after these events. For Marx, it was the Revolutions of 1848 and eventually the Paris Commune, while for Lenin it was the 1905 and 1917 Revolutions. In his study on Lenin, Georg Lukacs says

The actuality of the revolution: this is the core of Lenin’s thought and his decisive link with Marx. For historical materialism as the conceptual expression of the proletariat’s struggle for liberation could only be conceived and formulated theoretically when revolution was already on the historical agenda as a practical reality; when, in the misery of the proletariat, in Marx’s words, was to be seen not only the misery itself but also the revolutionary element ‘which will bring down the old order’.”10

It is absolutely essential for Marxists and communists to believe that a revolution is possible, which is not the same as believing a revolution is inevitable. As I argued in the previous essay, “Revolutionary Subjects,” the nature of capitalism continuously produces revolutionary situations. They may be infrequent, and they usually do not lead to an actual revolution, but they continuously arise. Since the working class always already experiences class struggle due to its antagonistic position within the mode of production, they always have the potential to become revolutionary.11  

Unfortunately in France, the PCF was unwilling to learn any lessons from the students and workers that spearheaded May ‘68. While revolutionaries internal and external to the party rigorously analyzed the crisis and sought new forms of organization, the PCF would not be driven off the electoral road. The PCF and other revisionists share a static attitude towards politics. They have a vision that politics need to unfold in a certain way, at a specific point in time, and that regardless of what actually happens, they will not deviate from the pre-conceived plan. The second half of Lukacs’ quote on Lenin is just as insightful in this regard. He says

“To a vulgar Marxist, the foundations of bourgeois society are so unshakeable that, even when they are most visibly shaking, he only hopes and prays for a return to ‘normality’, sees its crises as temporary episodes, and regards a struggle even at such times as an irrational and irresponsible rebellion against the ever-invincible capitalist system. To him, the fighters on the barricades are madmen, the defeated revolution is a mistake, and the builders of socialism, in a successful revolution – which in the eyes of an opportunist can only be transitory – are outright criminals.”12

While Lukacs here was probably criticizing figures like Plekhanov or Kautsky, who were both critical of the Russian Revolution, this can very easily apply to the PCF. If one is worried rather than excited when the masses rise up against the state and bourgeoisie, they need to re-examine their beliefs. As Lenin says, “The Marxist is the last to leave the path of direct revolutionary struggle, he leaves it only when all possibilities have been exhausted, when there is not a shadow of hope for a shorter way, when the basis for an appeal to prepare for mass strikes, an uprising, etc., is obviously disappearing.”13 The PCF should have been the last to abandon hope for a revolution, rather than being the biggest obstacle to one amongst the French left. 

To use an analogy: it’s like in sports when a coach draws up a game plan, and even when the game plan is clearly not working, or if the game unfolds in an unexpected way, they refuse to adjust and the team loses. This attitude plagues even those with revolutionary politics, where political and social events like the Pandemic or 2020 uprisings demand a shift in practice and strategy, and organizers do not adjust in time. In the case of the 2020 uprisings, the left largely did not anticipate the explosion, and was unprepared to play a larger role in the crisis.14 The refrain to radical experimentation in response to the demands of the conjuncture is often a warning against reaction. After all, if an organization has spent months or years drawing up a strategy and vision, then it would be unwise to completely tear up the plan in reaction to a single event. No one wants to admit that their previous work was all for naught. But you can only plan so much, and at a certain juncture the events demand that you have to change your tactics or else you will be left behind. This is why communists need to develop an approach to politics that is premised on experimentation, while not entirely abandoning principles. 

While the relationship between strategy and tactics is complex and a more detailed exploration lies beyond the scope of this essay, I will say that strategy should be based on principles rather than on systems. For example, the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) was closely tied to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in terms of strategy, and the CPUSA took orders from the CPSU, just like the PCF. During the red scare following World War II, the CPUSA decided that the organization should move underground to avoid state repression. They based this decision on the writings of Lenin, who consistently advocated for the party to remain underground in Tsarist Russia. In her account of life in the CPUSA, Vivian Gornick says, 

“Lenin was right – for Russia. But the Americans adopted his method as though it was self-evidently right for them too – when, in fact, their situation lay somewhere between the Europeans’ and the Russians’. The sorrow and the pity of the American CP was that it never really understood or trusted the workings of its own country, and thus ricocheted continually off the walls of inorganic practices. These practices included an inconsistent relation to the idea of being an underground party in America; that inconsistency, in turn, heightened the Party’s own social and political apprehensions, and made the fear of self-doubt a function of neurotic anxiety; that anxiety burst into flame in the 1950s, but it had been smoldering for thirty years.”15  

The CPUSA formed their strategy by dogmatically importing the “Marxist-Leninist” framework into their own conditions, rather than starting out from principles. For communists, the highest principle is that of revolution, and all tactics must revolve around moving towards it. This obviously requires an analysis of the conjuncture, of the political forces operating in a social formation, and an experimental attitude towards organization.  

If there is a conception of Marxism that is conservative and rigid, then in theory this would be those that are traditionally labeled ‘economic determinist’ or class reductionist. In Russia in the early 20th century, the economist Marxists believed, following the ‘stagist’ theory, that Russia first had to pass through capitalism before transitioning to socialism. It was on this basis that the Mensheviks were critical of the Bolsheviks for wanting to overthrow the provisional government, and for their hostile attitude to the bourgeoisie (which was not in power before 1917). In fact, the attitude towards the ‘liberals’ was a sticking point in the split between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. As Cliff says, “In every crisis, they [the Mensheviks] showed doubt, hesitation, and fear. A revolution, however, is the most ruthless method of solving social questions. And indecisiveness is the worst possible condition at a time of revolution.”16 For the Mensheviks like Plekhanov, “the time wasn’t right,” and this is a popular refrain from conservative Marxists when the masses rise up and struggle against the state and bourgeoisie. In response to this logic, Althusser says,

“If it is true, as Leninist practice and reflection prove, that the revolutionary situation in Russia was precisely a result of the intense overdetermination of the basic class contradiction, we should perhaps ask what is exceptional about this ‘exceptional situation’, and whether, like all exceptions, this one does not clarify its rule – is not, unbeknown to the rule, the rule itself. For, after all, are we not always in exceptional situations?”17

In other words, if the Russian Revolution was unforeseen by Marxists due to the fact that Russia was not an industrialized capitalist country, which is where Marxists had predicted the first revolutions would occur, then how could this be explained? If Marxist theory says that the socialist revolution will arise out of the contradictions of the capitalist mode of production, then how was the first socialist revolution in a country without a mature capitalist mode of production? The revolutions of the 20th century in Russia, China, Cuba, Korea, Vietnam, and throughout the Global South have obliterated the ‘stagist’ theory, even if the failure of these revolutions to progress towards communism poses more questions. 

Regardless, throughout this series I believe I have demonstrated the necessity of reconstructing Marxism on the basis of class struggles. We must alter our positions towards forms of organization based on events like May ‘68, towards our conception of ‘revolutionary subjects’, and also our conception of revolutionary moments. A revolution cannot be fully predicted or anticipated as sometimes an upsurge explodes out of the smallest of instances. In May ‘68, the trigger that exploded the powder keg was the arrest of some rebellious students. In Russia in 1905, it was the firing of four factory workers due to their association with a Christian labor organization.18 All that communists can do is develop an approach towards politics that anticipates the actuality of revolution. If the class struggle is always already in motion, and if the contradictions of capitalism are intrinsic to the mode of production, then the class struggle boiling over into riots and insurrections is always on the horizon. 

Notes

1. Lenin cites the following source for the quote: Dnevnik Sotsial-Demokrata (Diary of a Social-Democrat)— a non-periodical organ published by G. Plekhanov. See present edition, Vol. 11, Note 88. p. 113.

2. Karl Marx, “Prussian Occupation of France,” from The Civil in France, accessed from https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/civil_war_france.pdf, 12. 

3. Karl Marx, “Letter to Kugelmann Concerning the Paris Commune,” accessed from marxists.org.

4. Vladimir Lenin, The State and Revolution, accessed from https://www.marxists.org/ebooks/lenin/state-and-revolution.pdf, 28. 

5. Tony Cliff, Building the Party, (Chicago: Haymarket, 2002), 145.

6. Vladimir Lenin, “The Third Congress of the RSDLP,” accessed from   https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1905/3rdcong/19.htm

7. Cliff, Building the Party, 101.

8. Karl Marx, “Letter to W. Bracke,” May 5, 1875, accessed from https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/letters/75_05_05.htm

9. Vladimir Lenin, “Lessons of the Revolution,” September 12-13, 1917, accessed from https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/sep/06.htm

10. Georg Lukacs, Lenin: A Study on the Unity of His Thought, (London: Verso, 2009), 11.

11. I elaborate on this in “What is Marxism?,” Negation Magazine, in the section on ‘Marxism as Method.’ 

12. Lukacs, Lenin: A Study, 11. 

13. Vladimir Lenin, The Crisis of Menshevism, accessed from https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1906/crimensh/index.htm#i

14. Salar Mohandesi observes this well in  “Party as Articulator,” Viewpoint Magazine, September 4, 2020.

15. Vivian Gornick, The Romance of American Communism, (London: Verso, 2019), 170-171.

16. Cliff, 231. 

17. Louis Althusser, “On Contradiction and Overdetermination,” in For Marx, (London: Verso, 2005) 104.

18. Cliff, 131.

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