Socialism, Politics and Revolution: Reading Jacobin Issue #127

I recently purchased a subscription to Jacobin magazine, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that its print version was well worth reading. While I have long appreciated how Jacobin provides its articles online and free of charge, as a strong believer in paid subscriptions it was gratifying to explore the quality of the magazine itself, full of interesting tidbits and bite-size discussions on the side as well as the detailed analysis which Jacobin is famous for.

My first reaction after having read roughly half of Issue #27, The First Red Century, is that there is a slightly stricter editorial line with the content of the magazine than the website. This is to be expected and not necessarily criticised. Jacobin’s contribution to American and global discourse has been profound, providing fertile ground for debate and engagement in a largely accessible format. It is difficult to imagine any website which has helped more in the recent past to popularise left-wing theory and open up the scope for debate. Beyond some obscure ‘social fascist’ accusations, those who disagree with one opinion on Jacobin are genuinely likely to encounter many analyses they respect, across class, race and gender lines. Nonetheless, founding editor Bhaskar Sunkara and recurring columnists such as Vivek Chibber (now editor of sister publication Catalyst) do make their vaguely-Trostkyist worldview clear in what is an interesting if somewhat pessimistic (perhaps appropriately?) review of the progress of socialism since 1917.

In The Few That Won, Sunkara explores the content in which Bolshevism emerged, discussing the evolution and betrayal of European social democracy and the emerging pragmatic line that the Bolsheviks took.

Did Lenin lead a coup? Though certainly not as spontaneous as the February Revolution, October represented a genuine popular revolution led by industrial workers, allied with elements of the peasantry. After the Kornilov coup, the Bolsheviks could claim a mandate for such an action. Their support was bolstered by a straightforward call for “peace, land, and bread.” The Mensheviks demanded patience from the long-suffering masses; the Bolsheviks made concrete promises. Making those desires a reality would be another matter, but the Bolsheviks were the force most militantly trying to fulfill the February Revolution’s frustrated goals.

While admiring their tactical brilliance at points, and defending Lenin from vulgar accusations of cynical motives (more on this later), Sunkara also reflects on the contradictions that the Bolsheviks did not account for, namely on the failure for an international or at least European revolution to actually take place, and how to actually rule in the meantime, the long meantime.

A central problem was the lack of clear agreement on what the dictatorship of the proletariat should look like. Like other wings of social democracy, the Bolsheviks focused on seizing power, not exercising it. Aside from vague sketches, they hadn’t thought much about politics after revolution. With the exploiting classes gone, would the proletariat need a socialist theory of jurisprudence or institutional checks on power? Caught in an unprecedented situation, they made it up as they went along.

Much has been made recently of the point of what the revolution would look like ‘the day after’, with the career of many Slovenian psychoanalysts resting on this simple if powerful observation. Yet it has also been the motivating force behind many so-called poststructuralists like Foucault in examining how the mechanics of power permeate social classes and bourgeois freedoms, coming to the conclusion that many repressive tendencies are constituent in the very construction of liberal freedoms. This is a deeper criticism than that of Frankfurt School figures like Adorno, who criticised Soviet culture for its ineffective critique of capitalist consumerism by merely valorising its opposite in the form of socialist realism and a celebration of the productive, patriotic worker. Instead, Foucault and here Sunkara are demonstrating a greater need for socialist movements and thinkers to reconsider and interrogate the philosophical foundations of what we claim we want.

Foucault’s argument in Chapter 4 of The Birth of Biopolitics 1978-1979 lectures goes along the following lines:

Liberal modes of governance from Adam Smith onwards have been concerned with how to best grow the wealth of the state through capitalist economic structures which decentralise the state’s role but retain the ability to distribute wealth. Neoliberal modes of governance would then take on the decentralising role of the state as itself a form of governance, regardless of social outcomes…

The problem with socialist thought is that it is primarily an economic philosophy, one which attempts to redress political inequality through the same art of governance, merely reversing it and redistributing economic wealth. Even if socialists aim to abolish the state, they retain the liberal practice of economic redistribution as their main goal, just taken to its logical extreme. There may be socialist economics, but there has not yet been any socialist art of government.

While Foucault is somewhat obtuse here, keeping in mind that these are statements made in a lecture hall from a philosopher who doesn’t shy away from making grand proclamations, his point is fairly straightforward: as it has been defined in the Marxist formula, you can’t do socialism. You can make it, and indeed the dominant metaphor is to create socialism (whether it be in this nation, that autonomous region or globally), but there is no prescribed way to act in a socialist manner.

This is likely the kernel of truth which Carl Schmitt observed when he criticised parliamentary democracy for essentially being yet another form of wealth and power distribution. His argument goes something like this:

Politics is a natural phenomenon which occurs when competing positions of any tendency are radicalised and contested rather than debated. In this sense, politics is about mobilisation and power, not about liberal ideas like debate and the general interest of the nation. Parliamentary democracy, with its coalitions, compromises and deals, does not represent effective political debate and much less the represents the will of the people. The most effective political movements carve out a chunk of the state for themselves, a process which can be done by a king or a dictator just as easily as it is by the parliament.

Schmitt’s story here has the benefit of the real-life example of increasing exercise of reserve powers in Weimar Germany as opposed to parliamentary powers. However, it is also a view which is both at once very cynical – everything boils down to power plays in Schmitt’s mind – and also incredibly naïve – Schmitt reduces Marx’s ideas (which he praises) into purely mobilising the working class to take a bigger portion of the state home with them. In that sense, Schmitt performs the ignorant mistake of essentialising liberal-capitalist relations as a perennial state of affairs in human nature – indeed he does it duplicitously, as it is precisely men like Schmitt who make this argument in order to dupe people into accepting strongman rule, as Schmitt famously justified Hitler’s 1933 coup de etat.

My own views of the October revolution are probably slightly rosy due to the immense impact that the reading of Ten Days That Shook The World had on me, and the discovery I made in reformulating my own political beliefs in the process. I think Sunkara’s critique is fair as he less condemns the Bolsheviks and more attempts to understand what went wrong. I think there are valid third wordlist arguments which demonstrate that even the flawed Soviet Union provided a vitally needed anti-colonial force. Indeed its entire history is made up of great achievements in fulfilling the true spirit of humanity while giving a pseudo-scientific base to some of bourgeois society’s most pernicious forms of discrimination. Therefore it is too reductive to condemn it outright and yet also politically and morally dubious to not attempt to account for its large flaws. It could have been so much more, and so could we.

With these observations in mind, you can imagine how Foucault would be fascinated by the Iranian Revolution, with its explicit emphasis on redefining the political and juridical basis of society from a liberal-capitalist form to a radical socialist-Shiite one. While it has become a truism to say that to change the system you must change peoples’ consciousness – Orwell’s famous example of Catalonian waiters refusing tips springs to mind here – it is also true that we too often presume that changing society or politics will inherently bring people along with us.

Where these lines intersect – theory and practice, as it were – is always difficult to predict at best. It reinforces why seemingly minute struggles over various political orthodoxies do actually retain some meaning and how social science developed in the 20th-21st centuries actually can help to give us some answers to these questions. In some sense we are far better adapted to the problems that the Bolsheviks would have faced because we have spent more than 100 years developing advanced governmental (and non-governmental) apparatuses in order to address social problems. Especially with the onset of automation, our problems are less the problems of production and far more the problems of distribution and social organisation. Attempting to conceive of what society we might want is far more possible today than it ever was before – if we wanted to.

You can purchase a subscription for Jacobin Magazine here, starting from $19.95 USD annually for the digital subscription which I use.

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