Can there be such a thing as a comprehensive revolutionary theory, a theory of revolutions that would be good for all times and seasons? Alternatively, have we reached a theoretical impasse of sorts, a glass ceiling in a manner of speaking, a kind of situation in which strategy and tactics are the only available resources, effective under some circumstances but not under others?
Can we find common ground that would apply to and circumscribe all forms of human struggle against all types of domination or oppression: economic or racist, against colonialism and neoliberalism, by the peasant and the indigenous folk, the truly disenfranchised and the dispossessed versus the “sophisticated” residents of the first, Western world? (Unlike the former, the Westerners don’t seem to experience oppression firsthand but only indirectly, not in any crude or physically debilitating manner but subtly, as if by proxy.)
Can humans unite under one banner, humans from all walks of life, against all forms of oppression, seemingly the species’ defining characteristic and its checkered history and its foreseeable future? Is there hope for humankind?
To ask such questions is like asking whether there can be a perfect chess game, a winning strategy against every conceivable opponent. Can chess games be won (or lost) by gearing your game to the person sitting across the board from you to their strengths and weaknesses, their moments of brilliance and their blind spots, their entire personality, and what else have you?
If you happen to be an aesthete, you’re more than likely to opt for the first alternative; but if winning is what concerns you the most, then the second-mentioned option is probably your best bet.
Offhand, one can think of two distinct, albeit related factors which seem to mitigate against a unified theory of human struggle: first, the apparent lack of common language, the language of “common experience”; and second, the differential stages of different peoples’ progress toward self-empowerment, which render their struggles incomparable since they may well be against different opponents, which, in turn, implies a different set of objectives, circumstances, etc.
The first I consider as fundamental, the crux of the matter, and I shall take it up in the sequel; the second, as particular. We can overcome both obstacles.
Submitting what we know to the criticism of the “wretched of the earth,” accepting that they have other knowledge that is not less or more valid than ours, [pre]supposes a double exercise — of humility and commitment:
Humility to accept the limitations of our world and knowledge (to become more disposed to learn from all others, including everyday people of color). Commitment because that knowledge is not available in academia’s lustrous salons, nor the armchairs of institutions. To assimilate that knowledge requires the sharing with the less fortunate ones all their pains and pleasures, on their terms. Since remote times we have called this attitude militancy. (Free translation from Spanish by Marthe Raymond,)
The cited passage reverberates with salient themes from both Frantz Fanon and Michel Foucault.
Foucault, because of the idea behind the genealogy of all knowledge, aiming to level the playing field: Insofar as the power/knowledge equivalence is concerned, there is no distinction between “disciplinary knowledge,” the kind of knowledge taught in academia, and “insurrectionary knowledge” that defies it. And Fanon, because of the singular focus on what was and still is an unmistakably anti-colonial struggle.
To illustrate the extent to which the fate of anti-colonial struggles the world over appears to fall on deaf ears, I refer the reader to the general drift of comments dedicated to this article, the second in the series.
True, we may be dealing here with situations and scenarios that don’t coincide with the Western idea of the revolutionary takeover. Still, none of the respondents tried to understand the exact ways in which their situation might differ from our own.
The best spin I can put on this is that most of the commenters were rather noncommittal; the worst, that they exhibited a characteristic lack of indifference or unconcern.
What’s particularly disturbing is that we’re talking about some of the most severe and highly articulate critics of capitalism and the decadent West. In a sense, therefore, this article is limited in what it aims to accomplish: it’s to convince my comrades-in-arms of the error of their ways.
Only then can we move forward.
What were the standard objections? And to what? To socialism in general or the Bolivarian Revolution in particular?
I suppose we may go along to a point with the first-mentioned disclaimer: for indeed, socialism had proven time and again to fall short of the mark when it comes to realizing that utopian, enlightened state of being on both the individual and the societal levels. And as far as I know, all astute thinkers and critics of East and West, North and South, all thinkers of anarchistic or post-anarchistic persuasion, are acutely aware of the dangers of statism, the inevitable byproduct of both socialism and capitalism alike.
In the final analysis, the only difference between the two equally authoritarian systems comes down to substituting one master for another, the factory owner, loosely speaking, for the apparatchik, a state-sanctioned bureaucrat. So this cannot be the whole explanation, not insofar as the Bolivarian Revolution is concerned, not insofar as the object is to delineate a significant difference of opinion between otherwise like-minded, right-thinking people, between people of the same ideological persuasion. There has got to be something else lurking in the background, something that escapes our normal vision.
We’re misinterpreting the nature of those struggles: we tend to view them as “post-colonial,” whereas nothing could be further from the truth. And for that very reason, we tend to respond to said struggles as though they posed a severe threat to our cherished ideological stance — which explains why we remain noncommittal, or indifferent as the case may be.
The truth of the matter is, even though the peoples in question, the peoples that comprise the bulk of South America, may have attained a post-colonial status de facto, they’re still beholden to the ole colonial ways and habits of thought. Despite their independence, they’re still under the colonial yoke in both body and spirit.
It’s this little factoid that the ever-discerning Western eye fails to take into account. That’s not surprising, perhaps, because it is the West that’s been the chief architect and the beneficiary of colonization as the means to its self-enrichment, and that continues “to proceed colonially in South America [and wherever it can] – refusing to transfer technology, continuing to rip off resources,” et cetera et cetera.
Must we look any further than our history to become painfully aware that a sense of national or ethnic identity doesn’t accrue to a people overnight but only as a result of a slow and arduous process?
And no, I’m not referring here to the rather unique “(North) American experiment” built on the backs of native populations and cemented by the institution of slavery, forging thus what would become an (American) identity about to be appropriated by the rightful conquerors of the New World. That’s a chapter all unto itself, and even a cursory look at the European theater only confirms the trend. Just think! Isn’t the unification of Germany, or of Italy for that matter, both relative newcomers to the European family of nations, a prime example of the same? (As an aside, some historians trace Germany’s remarkably belligerent stance at the turn of the 19th century and onwards to no other factor than her, relatively speaking, late birth as a nation.)
Interestingly, both countries experimented with an unabashedly fascistic form of government. Both were belligerent to an extreme.
It’s certainly not the case that a rabid sense of national or ethnic identity is an ingredient we would want to cultivate if the object is total emancipation of humankind from the things that divide us – skin color, ethnic or national origin, or gender. Sooner or later, we must shed all of those things if we’re ever to attain an enlightened state of being. But certainly, and here comes the rub, there are also times when nothing short of (re-)constructing a strong sense of national or ethnic identity, out of ashes, will do if we must reconstruct the long-shattered and fragile egos – of persons, groups of persons, of entire communities.
It may not be the ultimate solution, but it’s a remedial one: we must learn how to crawl before we can walk.
The underlying analogy, comparing the birth of a nation, its usual aches, and pains, to that of a growing individual, through childhood, adolescence, and full age, is perhaps too glib for comfort. Even so, it’s a useful simile, methinks, as far as it goes: The vagaries of a nation-state, especially at the early stages of its inception, aren’t that much different from the usual travails of an adolescent coming of age. And whatever one or the other may do by way of reaching their final destination, it can be thought of as a prop, a stepping stone, as something to be discarded and done away with once it is no longer needed.
Now, couple this with the fact that apart from the economic rationale behind colonial domination, there had always lurked a racist element aiming to emaciate the entire people, and one can readily imagine why the colonized collective psyche is damaged.
If there is a moral to this modest article, let it be that no size fits all! There indeed may be times when wars of liberation from the corrupt influence of the decadent West and its imperialistic outreach may have to precede revolutionary putsch on behalf of a classless society. It’s all a matter of timing!
And yet for some unfathomable reason, we tend to overlook this simple fact and hold everyone up to the same Western standard: if it’s not in accord with our way of thinking or doing things, then it’s unlikely to succeed.
In any event, there is a double standard at work here.
I don’t recall anyone pooh-poohing the French Revolution even though the French Republic had become just another liberal democracy — a fine-sounding name for a political system which, at the bottom, only justified the workings of capitalism in terms of neoliberal ideas.
There wasn’t much opposition either to the IRA’s goals in its struggle to win Irish independence from Britain, except for the methods.
Even the Arab Spring, once it had become evident that momentous changes were afoot, received reluctant support from our State Department, so long, of course, as the new government would be “democratic” and anti-socialist.
Contrast this now with our gut reaction to such events as the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Cuban Revolution of 1959, or South America’s struggle, still unfolding, and the conclusion is inescapable: Capitalism is all that matters!
And it doesn’t matter one iota, not insofar as the West is concerned, how it is maintained, whether by a strongman or a parliamentary system (which approximates the workings of liberal democracy) so long as it’s sustainable. Everything else is fluff, a pretext, nothing but window dressing.
Let’s keep this in mind before we move on!