Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Revolutionary Party and the Government

We will need a revolution to overthrow the capitalist class. At some point capitalism as mode of economic relations will cease to relate productively to the actual means of production. But the capitalist class, accustomed to centuries of rule, and having convinced themselves — like every ruling class — that they have an absolute moral right and obligation to rule, will refuse to relinquish political and military power, and will try to hold onto that power by increasingly oppressive and brutal means. (And if you think the modern capitalist class is already brutal and oppressive, you ain't seen nothin' yet.) At some point the people must rise up and take power, and they will have to respond to and defend themselves from the oppression of the capitalist class by force of arms. Any sincere and humane revolutionary would prefer to implement a revolution by the peaceful, democratic means the capitalist ruling class gives lip-service to (and indeed simple decency demands we attempt to do so up until the very moment it becomes patently impossible), but even the most casual student of history cannot hold much hope for a peaceful transition of the magnitude necessary to overthrow capitalism.

So, there will need to be some sort of revolution, which will demand a revolutionary party, or something very much like a revolutionary vanguard party: a nucleus to provide organization, leadership, and discipline to what will be a complicated and protracted struggle. More precisely, as conditions deteriorate, many revolutionary parties will form, and some individuals will pursue revolution without leadership and organization; sooner or later (hopefully sooner) one party will emerge as the obvious leader and seize power. (If the anarchists want to overthrow capitalism without the kind of leadership and discipline provided by a revolutionary vanguard party, they are welcome to try with — if they want it — my unqualified blessing. I just don't think they will be successful.)

I myself am squeamish and sentimental; analytical rather than emotionally persuasive; my weaknesses make me a poor revolutionary. I am much more interested in the question: What is to be done after a successful revolution? Perhaps even more importantly: What do we know definitely should not be done after a successful revolution?

The most important lesson of history is that after a successful revolution, the revolutionary party should not explicitly and structurally privilege itself in the subsequent government and political system.

The qualities that will be necessary for a successful revolutionary party — i.e. a party capable of successfully leading and winning a revolution — are precisely the qualities that make for poor government. A revolutionary party must be tightly disciplined and extremely focused. They must prefer to act decisively, even if some particular decision is wrong: In any struggle, millennia of military history has shown indecision and hesitation more fatal than error. A revolutionary party must be "gung ho"; they must speak with one voice, with all of its members at least pretending not just acquiescence but enthusiastic agreement. A revolutionary party must develop habits of secrecy and obedience. Most importantly, a revolutionary party must, for reasons of social psychology, adopt an uncompromising Utopian vision as the foundation of a mass movement.

A civil government of a free people, however, requires precisely the opposite qualities. The government must be flexible and wide-ranging. Debate must flow freely, with a wide variety of views espoused with the presumption of good will and honest intentions. A government must prefer indecision to error: better to do nothing than act wrongly. A government must develop habits of transparency and toleration of dissent. A government, most especially a democratic government, cannot afford to speak with one voice in the same sense as must a revolutionary party; grudging acquiescence is preferable to phony enthusiasm.

No class of people, however defined, can ever be trusted to rule on behalf of another class. At best, when the aims, habits and interests of a ruling class happen to coincide with those of the ruled, the rulers can maintain the appearance of benevolence. But the interests of the ruling class will soon diverge from those of the ruled — subtly at first, so that the divergence and hostility can be easily rationalized — until the rulers are nakedly oppressing the ruled. If a revolutionary party sets itself up as a ruling class, either de jure or de facto, it will remain the ruling class until the next revolution.

Without commenting on the historical circumstances surrounding the past Communist governments of the Soviet Union and China, we can at least conclude that the rule of a party is not a successful road to democratization. Even with a commitment to some sort of ideological purity (a commitment I'm deeply suspicious of), there is too much scope for those without that commitment to gain power and corrupt the ideology from within. The Communist Parties of both the Soviet Union and China became corrupted by bourgeois ideology; neither party was capable of resisting this corruption. The rule of the party cannot the rule of an ideology; it is the rule of just a name: the rule of the people who call themselves by that name. The only way to rule by ideology is when the people wholeheartedly adopt that ideology, and rule themselves by it. If the ideology is restricted to a ruling class, the ideology will inevitably change to favor the perpetual rule of that class.

It is not just the Communist Parties that have displayed this evolution. Every ideology that has established a privileged class — the religions of the ancient world, Catholic and Protestant Christianity, Islam, feudalism, mercantilism and capitalism and republican "democracy" — all have evolved to justify the perpetual rule of that class, regardless of their actual beneficence to the ruled: If the ruled are unhappy with the actions of the rulers, the ruling class ever believes is the ruled who are in error: it is precisely because the ruled "cannot" rule themselves that they must have a ruling class above them, n'est pas?

It is likely that any revolutionary party will enjoy enormous prestige after a revolution. For a time, at least, there would be no need to structurally privilege the party itself. And the time a structural privilege would be needed is precisely the time when the revolutionary party must give way to the people.

Not only must a revolutionary party not structurally privilege itself after a successful revolution, it must explicitly and officially sow the seeds of its own destruction. It may ride for the time in the passenger seat, but it must decisively give the keys of state to the people, and let the people decide when they no longer desire the advice and guidance of the party.

It may be too much to expect a revolutionary party to accede to this demand, and it may be the case that a new ruling class would be better than the capitalist ruling class. Indeed for a revolution to be successful, almost anything should be better than the capitalist ruling class. Say what you will about the Communist Parties of the Soviet Union and China, it is hard to consider them anything but a profound improvement from the supine victims of Western imperialism, and attempts to establish a Western-style republican bourgeois "democracy" proved entirely ineffectual.

But nevertheless, I feel I must make this demand. If the people are not immediately put in charge after a successful revolution, it will require yet another revolution to put them in charge. And, regardless of my efforts in the first, I will inevitably join the second.


  1. Larry,

    In the course of this revolution, more than one group of revolutionaries may rise to prominence. What would happen if those groups had differing political and economic goals? In my opinion, the two most likely possibilities are balkanization or another protracted civil war.

    Do you think either of these possibilities would be likely to be in the best interests of the people?

    Observation: Only a fraction of any population actually gets involved in any given revolution. The overwhelming majority only wants the fighting to stop.

    Given this observation, the nature of all post-revolutionary societies is toward a ruling elite. Doesn't this imply that your desired revolution will merely repeat the same cycle of creating a new ruling class which would invariably grow ever more oppressive?

  2. Good questions, Archvillain, and ones that every so-called revolutionary must ponder deeply.


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