Editorial: What Is To Be Done?
A month ago, I ended a six-month hermitage with my family in Florida and began traveling, giving presentations, leading reading events for the most recent issue of A Beautiful Resistance. Since I left, I’ve been in eight different American cities, several large ones, quite a few of them small. My intention was to visit friends before I leave for France, to catch up on the lives of people I love and visit places I might not see again for awhile.
I got to do that, yes. But more so, I found myself in relentless conversation with people, many of whom I’d only just met, about the imminent threat of fascism and the crisis of Empire.
That probably doesn’t surprise you. But what might surprise you, or at least surprised me, were all the other things I heard:
- Several women, all mothers, spoke of the hard decisions they’re looking at regarding risk, how much they might be able to take on even though they are mothers of children. Also, many of them mentioned that they are pursuing gun training.
- Several gay guys discussed how they’re trying to expand their networks of friendship to create mutual defense and communication groups.
- Three lawyers told me how they are trying to use their training to fight on behalf of people being targeted by the government and emboldened corporations.
- Two people told me how they are stockpiling medications, hormones, and birth-control for those who will soon not be able to get them.
- A therapist explained how discussing disaster preparedness and mitigating activist-burnout is now a common theme in their practice and told of other therapists now directly offering counseling for this.
- Office workers described how they’re co-opting their employer’s copiers to disseminate protest posters and pamphlets
- Two artists spoke about strategizing the use of spectacle and carnival in order to build bridges between established movements and new protesters.
- No less than seven people told me about contingency plans they’ve made to protect, hide, or smuggle immigrants.
Something is happening. Something has changed. Something has awoken in people, a new urgency, a new certainty, and a new drive to create the sort of world we want.
Good Priest/Bad Priest: Still a Priest
In a way, we have Trump to thank for this. The last eight years in the United States were an illusion, a carnival at the end of Empire, a second-summer or the proverbial deck-chair re-arranging on the Titantic.
Obama convinced many that Capitalism might not be so bad, that progress could be made, that things could get better without directly altering the system by which people are made to suffer. Like the best of actors or the most charismatic of salesmen, the previous leader of the American Empire made many of us feel quite good about the stories we were being told. It was easy to forget we were watching false images projected on a screen veiling our own desires, or that what we were promised wasn’t really possible in the product we were being sold.
It was never actually possible to square the social justice ‘progress’ we were told was happening with the increasing murders of Black people by police, the relentless unemployment, the cuts to benefits and all the drone-attacks on wedding parties where our oil is.
With enough snake-oil, we learned to accept the contradictions and hypocrisies of liberal democracy. Though gentrification in urban centres created shocking jumps in rates of homelessness, we convinced ourselves that the rise of a new bourgeois culture meant we were all becoming more free. Though rates of queer and trans deaths by suicide or murder continued to increase, we consoled ourselves that gay marriage and hate-crime legislation meant we were liberated. Though explosions of oil-transports and pipe-line leaks became monthly news, we bought into the promise that our present was more ‘green’ and ‘eco’ than we’ve ever been. Thousands of species went extinct last year and atmospheric CO2 leavels reached a crucial tipping-point, but we clung tighter to our faith in international climate agreements.
Now Trump’s here, and there’s no one to keep promising things they couldn’t deliver any longer. Instead, he promises death, suffering, deportations, hyper-nationalism, racist executive policy and an end to environmental protections. Suddenly, the re-assuring voice is gone, the icon of comfortable self-coddling shattered, and all that’s left is a blood-stained altar officiated-over by a priest promising to sacrifice all we hold dear.
The Party’s Over
In 1901, Vladimir Lenin–then part of the Russian social-democratic party–wrote a pamphlet called, Что делать? (What Is To Be Done?). He wrote it to unravel a crisis within the primary opposition party to Tsarist Russia: many party leaders argued that popular anger should be channeled into the pre-existing political structures. Essentially, the social-democrats argued the same then as the liberals and Democratic Party argue now: the best way to liberate people is through political parties. Against this idea, Lenin argued for a new party, a ‘vanguard’ which would organize that anger into militant Marxist revolution.
At least partially because of Lenin’s work, the Tsar was eventually overthrown. Unfortunately, again partially because of Lenin’s work, the revolution of the independent soviets against a tyrannical regime than turned into a new tyranny, another nation-state to replace the former, a new dictator (Stalin) to replace the emperor.
Why bring up Lenin, though? Because we are in a similar time. Mass anger and political actions against tyranny are rising in the United States, their numbers giving strength to resistance movements like Black Lives Matter, indigenous, and other local resistance movements all across the United States. None of these are connected to the Democratic Party in any way, except that of the people within those movements tend to also vote Democrat.
That party is currently in shambles, proving themselves completely inept at standing against Trump, too eager to placate their corporate funders and move as close to the imaginary center as possible rather than follow the political desires of the people they claim to represent. While turnout in numbers may have been the highest ever in the US, a smaller percentage of eligible voters actually showed up to vote in the last presidential election than the previous two. The Republican party, on the other hand, suddenly has new blood, a fascist element called the alt-right eager to use the government to enact their terrifying will.
(Social) Democrats in the United States have always only argued for mere reform of the system–granting a modicum of social justice ‘progress’ in return for our silence on the exploitation of the poor and the environment. Now, they face a new revolutionary mobilization (against Trump) which they are not leading and to which they have nothing to offer.
Our moment is not much different from what arose to fight the Tsar. Spontaneous movements are arising, individual actions shifting into networks of opposition. The people I have met this last month were all acting as individuals without prompting from party officials or elected leaders, just as the alliances of the soviets (mutual-defense committees) arose without official sanction in Russia.
The great strength of the spontaneous movements which have arisen in the last few years is their non-hierarchical and non-partisan structure. You do not need to be a Democrat to join a Black Lives Matter protest, nor did you need to have a political affilliation to join the Water Protectors at Standing Rock. Movements that are arising post-Trump are thus far following the lead that Blacks and indigenous groups started, but it’s not certain they will stay that way.
In fact, many Democratic officials and politicians have begun trying to channel our resistance back into the system, claiming to be the only means by which Trump can be defeated and America can return to the non-existent ‘progress’ promised by Obama and Clinton, putting us again in the same situation Lenin saw at the turn of the last century.
“Start Your Own Damn Resistance”
We can learn a lot from Lenin, particularly what not to do in such circumstances.
His idea for a vanguard of militant organising which transcended all the ‘spontaneous’ resistance movements was predicated on the inability of the average person to see beyond their immediate struggle. To some degree, we see this repeating, particularly in the increasing sectarianism of liberal identity politics in which the primary cause of oppression is not the rich, but all other identities. Worse, new white-led groups have begun decrying pre-existing groups like Black Lives Matters and the resistance to Standing Rock for not adequately representing ‘intersecting’ struggles, for not being ‘accessible’ enough or being too “cis-centric.”
All this points to the likelihood that Lenin was correct, that individuals cannot see beyond their own struggle. But in my experience, most people do. Everyone I’ve talked to in person this last month understood that their resistance was connected to the resistance of others. If anything, it was the actions of others who inspired them to do their own, to do what was possible for them in their direct circumstances.
The desire to channel all those independent actions into one great movement, with chosen leaders and a party line certainly exists, and it is a great danger. While there is no significant Marxist party organizing in the United States, many catch-all liberal social justice movements follow Lenin’s call. If anything, they are attempting to be Lenin’s vanguard, presenting a party line of Anglo-American social-justice morality to which every participant must adhere. But where Lenin argued for increased militancy, their arguments merely seek to defame any action that did not get pre-approval from an activist with the right social-justice cred or a popular-enough blog.
More dangerous, however, are the actual parties who understand and employ power. The Democratic Party has alternately governed the United States for most of the last century not because they were popular, but because they were powerful. Just as many corporations are aligned with them as with the Republicans, and all that money they receive doesn’t go to ending homelessness. They have the apparatus and the finances to channel all our movements back into the system…if we let them.
If anything, the Democratic Party now stands in the place that the Communist Party stood during the revolution: under Lenin’s leadership, the revolutionary movements of the people became subsumed within one totalitarian party.
While the moral Leninists attempt to police the ideology of every individual movement into inaction, and the political Leninists attempt to co-opt all our various struggles into their party, we must reject Lenin’s primary premise. The individual is not too ignorant to see beyond their own situation; local groups are not too stupid to see how their resistance relates to those of others.
We don’t need a vanguard. We don’t need an elite group of self-appointed activists to judge if our actions follow the correct academic prescriptions and avoid all potential offense; nor do we need hierarchical party structures and professional leaders who will treat us like soldiers in their war for power.
We already know how to resist. We already know how our individual acts of resistance will help others resist. We already know how to build the world we want to see.
How do I know this? Because we’re already doing this. I’ve met people doing this in the last four weeks. I’ve been to Black Lives Matters protests and seen that they’re already doing this. I’ve talked to people who were at Standing Rock and heard how they’re already doing this.
Not only can we resist without a vanguard or a party, we must.
Lenin’s strong-armed take over of the Russian revolution led to Stalin. In resisting tyranny, we cannot accept those who would channel our revolution towards new tyranny.
If this means we never ‘unify,’ so be it. If anything, fascism and state-communism want us all the same anyway, all under one great banner, removing all difference from our midst.
We’ve seen repeatedly where the path of one final truth goes, and it is far from beautiful.
Rhyd Wildermuth’s an anarchist, theorist, poet, and writer. He’s also a nomad, is the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals, and really likes tea.
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