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The Road to Power? A Comment on “We Believe that We Can Win”

Notes on the Road
to 21st Century Socialism

Issue 2, March 2020

The Road to Power? A Comment on “We Believe that We Can Win”

LeftRoots has done a great service to the US left by producing the text “We Believe that We Can Win.” There was a time when this kind of strategic thinking was the norm in the revolutionary movement, something that was expected from both individuals and organizations. Today, however, it’s rare that anyone engages with this level of depth and rigor. And yet it is just as essential now as it was in the past. So, my hat’s off to the team that produced “We Believe…” and to LeftRoots for both conceiving the creation of that document and launching the journal Out to Win! as a forum for further discussion.

My goal in the present contribution is to focus on one question which is essentially absent from “We Believe”: the question of insurrection, of taking state power, of displacing and dispersing the present imperial state in the USA and replacing it with a new one based on an insurgent mass movement. The authors offer us some discussion about what a revolutionary state might look like and what its tasks will be. But any conversation about the circumstances which will allow us to bring a new kind of state into existence is missing. I would say this is probably the most serious weakness in the thinking they present to us. 

Some may react that revolutionaries in the USA are far from the moment when we will be in a position to overthrow and disperse the old state power, so it’s not a question we really need to concern ourselves with. If that thought is occurring to anyone who might be reading these lines allow me to respond by suggesting three counter-arguments:

* Rarely do revolutionaries expect the opportunity for an insurrectionary overthrow of the old state to arise before it actually does. There is, instead, a consistent historical pattern in which the most conscious elements fail to anticipate decisive struggles. Such struggles most often come upon us suddenly, in a manner that revolutionaries do not—and cannot reasonably be expected to—foresee. I will argue, therefore, that making ourselves conscious of the dynamics involved in the transition from one kind of state to another, and then maintaining that collective consciousness, should be a consistent task.

* If we want to understand events elsewhere on the globe this issueisessential, often in quite an immediate way (see discussion of Honduras below as one example).

* I will insist that everything we do today needs to be guided by the knowledge that we are headed toward and preparing ourselves for an insurrectionary moment at some point in the future. This is true in part because our goals include helping to develop a cadre with sufficient theoretical understanding. That can take years, even decades to achieve. So we cannot begin too soon. The immediacy of this question also arises, however, because our participation in the movement for immigrant rights, or around climate change, or a labor strike, or for prison abolition (this list could be extended, of course) needs to be informed by our longer-term insurrectionary strategy. We should, as we engage in these campaigns, be striving for more than short-to-medium-term victories. Equally important is how any victories we manage to achieve, along with the mobilizations leading up to them, contribute to the broader social process which Marta Harnecker described as “making the impossible possible,” helping the mass movement to become more actively protagonist as it prepares for deeper struggles moving forward—leading to the insurrectionary moment that is the subject of our present conversation.

Case Study: Honduras

The need to think about a transition from one kind of state to another is posed starkly in the contribution to the first issue of Out to Win! titled “We are losing, but we can win: caravans, imperialism and waging the war of position for 21st century socialism” by the LeftRoots Ad Hoc Anti-Imperialism Working Group. This article focuses on events in Honduras starting in 2009. It describes the successful efforts of the Honduran elite, along with US imperialism, to thwart the will of the Honduran people—despite a mass upsurge which, it seems clear, posed the issue of what social forces ought to be in control of the state in Honduras.

One question should jump off the page as we consider this train of events: Why was imperialism, in collaboration with the domestic forces of oppression, able to overthrow Manuel Zelaya Rosales and reimpose a rule of the rich despite the continuing upsurge? Was there something different that might have happened which would have made this impossible, or at least more difficult? 

The answer, I believe, is rooted in the issue of the state: What kind of state existed in Honduras? Whose interests was it structurally designed to serve? Can a popular upsurge simply take control of the state which already exists and use it to advance the interests of the mass movement? Or do the masses need to overthrow the old state and establish a new one in order to achieve their goals?

In this instance the Honduran military was not disarmed and dispersed. This is the key element in our equation. The upsurge limited itself (or was limited by conditions—I haven’t studied the situation sufficiently and cannot therefore tell you which) to an electoral victory, believing that this would lead to the resolution of the most important social problems. True, the movement struggled mightily to maintain that electoral victory as the right wing worked to snatch it away. But even as they engaged in this battle the strategic conceptions of the masses were limited to using forms of capitalist democracy (which, of course, do include “peaceful protest”), accepting this as the legitimate terrain of struggle. The old repressive institutions were, therefore, still available to the forces of reaction when it was decided that the moment had arrived to move beyond capitalist democracy as a terrain of struggle, to simply suspend it instead.

The call for a “restoration of democracy and the convening of a National Constitutional Assembly to ‘re-found’ Honduras from below” cannot be implemented by “democratic” means (the quotes throughout this article because we are talking about capitalist democratic means, which are quite limited). It can only prevail by force of arms (by which we mean a deeper kind of democracy enforced by the mass movement which has armed itself to defend against the forces of capitalist repression). At the very least such an orientation needs to be backed up by the threat of an armed power. This is true because those opposed to the “restoration of democracy and the convening of a National Constitutional Assembly” are willing to resort to arms in order to make sure that process never takes place. It should come as no surprise, then, when the strategy of using the tools of a capitalist democracy to fight for this objective in Honduras are unable to achieve its goal.

We will talk more in a moment about how commonplace a negation ofdemocracy is in so-called “democratic” nations, why revolutionaries should be well prepared for such a turn of events, not leave ourselves or the movement we are part of disarmed—both ideologically and literally. But first a word about a related issue: our conception of “revolution.”

What do we mean when we talk about “revolution”?

The word “revolution” is used loosely these days to mean any kind of significant social change. In the old days, however, it meant precisely the process of overthrowing the old state power and establishing a new one, disarming and dispersing the former forces of repression and creating a new army made up of and responsible to the insurgent masses. This new armed power could then enforce new laws made by the masses themselves or by their direct representatives. I would like to suggest that a genuinely revolutionary left in the USA—or anywhere else for that matter—needs to restore this former meaning of the word “revolution,” making it the basis of our strategic thinking.

The problem we confront is, conceptually, quite simple: A mass upsurge can pose the question of power. But by itself a mass upsurge cannot solve this question. There has to be a conscious cadre that understands how and why the question is posed, develops a plan to resolve it based on and in collaboration with the mass movement, and is strategically placed (has sufficient positive engagement with key mass organizations) so that it can play a decisive role in winning majority support for a revolutionary plan of action. The process of displacing one kind of class power with another cannot be imposed on the mass movement by a small armed group. Even if such a strategy is successful for a moment it can never create lasting state institutions. The revolutionary plan must become a genuine expression of the majority will if it wants to have any hope for longer-term success.

There may be some readers, those familiar with revolutionary history/theory, who will recognize in the last paragraph a restatement of essential elements in Lenin’s theory of the vanguard party. If so it’s not accidental. I did not invent the ideas I’m developing in this article. They are firmly rooted in a Leninist paradigm. But more important than what tradition these ideas come from is what they reflect in terms of the life lessons of struggles by working people for meaningful social change in every corner of the globe during both the 20th and 21st centuries. Let’s now look a bit more closely at that history.

Other historical case studies

Honduras, as noted, is not an exceptional case. There are may countries with similar stories. The best-known, of course, is the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973. Fidel Castro famously gave Allende the gift of a machine gun when he visited Chile two years before the Pinochet coup. Unfortunately, Allende failed to act on the message Fidel was, apparently, trying to convey.

But Chile, too, is only one example. If we consider just the history since World War II others that have achieved global attention include Iran (Mossadegh, 1953); Guatemala (Arbenz, 1954); The Dominican Republic (Juan Bosch, 1965); and Indonesia, (Sukarno, 1967). The pattern is the same each time: democratically-elected governments that actually attempt to use the power of the pre-existing state to pursue the interests of the popular masses are overthrown by military coups, or through other totalitarian measures. Sometimes these coups have domestic origins and are simply supported by Washington. At other times the plots are born and bred in the USA. But the social dynamic is the same in each instance: forces of reaction take the law into their own hands and overthrow democratically-elected governments that they (and the US State Department) do not like.

There are other case studies as well, reflecting somewhat different institutional dynamics—but all nevertheless pointing to the same set of problems and the same fundamental lesson: the need to create new state institutions as part of any revolutionary process. South Africa, for example, continued to rely on forms of capitalistdemocracy after the overthrow of Apartheid. These post-Apartheid “democratic” institutions do allow for the participation of Black voters, but beyond that the changes are minimal. The former elites thereby maintain their power over society, even if they are now joined in a partnership with a new elite that includes individuals with Black faces. This transformation solved the problem of racial apartheid in South Africa, and the overthrow of racial apartheid in that country is certainly something for history to celebrate. But it could not solve the problem of economic apartheid, of who really holds the power to make the most important social decisions.

In Egypt, the Tahrir Square occupation in 2011 also posed the question of power, but in this case, there was no opportunity even to elect a government that might be sympathetic to the popular will. This reflects another pattern, a variant we see often in nations where the trappings of capitalist democracy are absent, or extremely weak. Unlike in Honduras (Chile, Iran, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Indonesia) we jump directly to military or other reactionary forces stepping in to fill a vacuum of power created by a mass upsurge. The result is parallel even if the forms are different.

Another experience is also fairly common. In 1986 Corazon Aquino was elected president in the Philippines. During her campaign Aquino was widely perceived as an individual who would be responsive to the peoples’ needs. This was true primarily because she played a key role in the struggle to create electoral democracy after the toppling of the Marcos dictatorship. Marcos’s fall was the product of a powerful mass upsurge which continued through the period when elections were held. So, expectations were high after Aquino’s victory. In fact, however, Aquino turned out to be just another ruler who prioritized the needs of the rich and powerful. The social dynamics involved in this and similar cases are quite different from those when democratically-elected governments are toppled by military coups. There was no need for the military to overthrow Aquino. The masses were thwarted in their desire to see real social change through a different kind of process, a political sleight-of-hand rather than armed repression. But our root problem (the choice of a mass upsurge to rely on capitalist forms of democracy in order to seek solutions) was not so different.

Venezuela is another interesting case study, one which might seem to contradict the fundamental thesis in this article because the Venezuelan military was at least a partial ally of Hugo Chavez in helping to advance the revolutionary process. Also, the coup attempt of 2002 was turned back in Venezuela, and more recent efforts to impose an alternative made-in-the-USA political regime have been effectively stalemated at least for now. And yet if we look at the current situation in that country, I would argue that we can, once again, identify an inability to resolve the question of the state, of whose class interests it will actually serve, as central to the difficulties presently confronted by the Venezuelan revolution. The power of that revolution has been able to keep this contradiction from completely overwhelming it so far. But the Venezuelan people cannot continue such a balancing act indefinitely. At some point the old state will have to be liquidated and a new one established or the counterrevolution will surely succeed.

Another world is possible

And now let’s take a look at a few revolutions which actually managed—even if only partially and for a time—to chart an independent course, thumbing their noses effectively at imperialism. It’s not hard to see that they did things differently. In Cuba, Vietnam, China, Russia, there were decisive insurrectionary moments when a new power was clearly established. Whatever critiques we can make about other aspects of these revolutionary processes (and there is much to consider on that level) they do clearly illustrate the power which is unleashed when a revolution dissolves previous forms of the state and establishes something new, something of its own, to replace them.

Cuba is a particularly striking case study for us because of the contrast to what happened in Honduras and so many other Latin American nations. When it wanted to overthrow the Cuban revolution Washington could not rely on the military forces on the island, or send in the Marines without any expectation of serious resistance. It had to launch an invasion from the outside, at the Bay of Pigs, which the Cuban military—now loyal directly to the people of Cuba—was able to turn back without difficulty.

Finally, it does seem important to nuance our analysis still further by considering Nicaragua. Here there was the kind of insurrectionary moment we have been discussing, the establishment of a new state power after the overthrow of Somoza. But the Nicaraguan “Bay of Pigs,” which went under the name of the “Contra War,” was more difficult for the new state to deal with because in Nicaragua the new state was weaker than it was in Cuba, and Nicaragua did not have the assistance of a powerful ally like the USSR. Ultimately it proved impossible for the Sandinista revolution to combat the Contras effectively—though it took years of concerted warfare, backed by Washington, before the revolution was decisively defeated. 

So, there are many potential variants of the process we are discussing. But the same terms of engagement with imperialism, and with democratic-institutions-based-on-capitalist-property, are nonetheless at work in each of them.

Conclusion: the political tasks of revolutionaries

Our conclusion has to be that one goal of revolutionaries is the overthrow of all forms of capitalist state power, including so-called “democratic” forms, taking advantage of the possibility for a revolutionary/insurrectionary moment when it occurs. We do not create this moment. We onlytake advantage of it when it arises. But we can, through the ways in which we engage with partial struggles today, begin to bring it closer. And we can do the same thing when there is the kind of mass upsurge that took place in Honduras, or in Tahrir Square, or during countless other crisis moments for the still-predominant capitalist/imperialist (white-supremacist/patriarchal) world system. We can focus on struggles that engage the independent power of the mass movement to win reforms, rather than the power invested in the current capitalist state; we can also focus on forms of organization where people begin to make decisions for themselves, rather than relying on “leaders.”

How to proceed with all of this is a big conversation that I hope we will be able to engage moving forward. For today, however, my goal is simply to make us more conscious of how important it is to include a conception of insurrection in our definition of revolution, not proceed as if we are expecting the “democratic” institutions of the present state in the USA—or anywhere else—to  be a tool we can rely on in our effort to reshape the future. We must, of course, take advantage of whatever democratic institutions any capitalist state might offer. But if our use of them does not lead to their replacement with even more democratic forms of rule, based on and directly responsible to those who are presently oppressed and exploited because of capitalist political hegemony (enforced in the USA and many other nations by “democratic” means) we will have failed in our revolutionary tasks.

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