Reflections on resistance, reform, and revolution

The problematic forms of
contemporary anticapitalism

Untitled.
Image: Cover to Rosa Luxemburg’s
Sozialreform oder Revolution? (1899)

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The following are the prepared remarks to a Platypus panel on “The 3 Rs: Reform, Revolution, and Resistance” with 1960s activist Todd Gitlin and WIL organizer Tom Trottier, held last March at NYU. A considerably expanded and improved version of this essay has been published by Upping the Anti (which I encourage everyone interested to buy):

Almost five years have passed since Platypus hosted its first panel on “The 3 Rs: Reform, Revolution, and Resistance.” At the time, many of us were trying to come to terms with the profound sense of disorientation we’d felt during our involvement in the antiwar movement, which was then in a process of rapid disintegration. We hoped to explore the relationship between these three categories, both to each other and to the greater project of human freedom, in order to determine whether an emancipatory politics was still even possible. How can the respective political modes of resistance, reform, and revolution be deployed to advance social and individual freedom? How might they reinforce each other on a reciprocal basis? Today, with the recent upsurge in global activism, we stand on the precipice of what promises to herald the rebirth of such a politics. These questions have acquired a renewed sense of urgency in this light. Now more than ever, they demand our attention if we are to forge a way forward without repeating the mistakes of the past.

Reform, revolution, and resistance — each of these concepts exercises a certain hold over the popular imagination of the Left. While they need not be conceived as mutually exclusive, the three have often sat in uneasy tension with one another over the course of the last century, however. The Polish Marxist Rosa Luxemburg famously counterposed the first two in her pamphlet Reform or Revolution?, written over a hundred years ago. In her view, this ultimately turned out to be a false dichotomy. Nevertheless, Luxemburg was addressing a real dilemma that had emerged along with the formation of the Second International and the development of mass working-class politics in the late nineteenth century. Even if she was able to conclude that reforms could still be pursued within the framework of a revolutionary program — that is, without falling into reformism — this was by no means an obvious position to take.

Still less should we consider the matter done and settled with respect to our current context, simply because a great figure like Luxemburg dealt with it in her own day. We do not have the luxury of resting on the accomplishments or insights of past thinkers. It is unclear whether the solution at which she arrived then holds true any longer. History can help us understand the momentum of the present carried over from the past, as well as possible futures toward which it may be tending. But it offers no prefabricated formulae for interpreting the present, no readymade guides to action.

Reform, revolution, resistance 2012 poster

Reform, revolution, resistance 2012 poster

Neither can the difficulty of relating these three concepts — reform, revolution, and resistance — be avoided by invoking the commonplace of a “diversity of tactics.” Each of these ostensibly refers to an overarching strategy for achieving emancipation, and thus cannot be reduced to a mere selection of tactics. With “resistance,” it is uncertain if this activity (or passivity) ever even attains to the level of a conscious strategy, much less tactics. In Foucault’s metaphysics of power, resistance is an unconscious, automatic, and reflexive response to power relations wherever they exist. “Where there is power, there is resistance,” claims Foucault. As a statement, however, this says nothing of the world as it ought to be, or how such a world might be brought into existence. At most, it only describes a fact of being.[1]

But perhaps all this already assumes too much. The more fundamental question that presently confronts us is the following: What do reform, revolution, and resistance even mean today? In their modern usage these concepts each arose historically, in connection with concrete processes and events. These are hardly “perennial” categories reaching all the way back to the dawn of man; indeed, the oldest among them is only as old as the Left itself. A review of the contexts in which these concepts crystallized may help clarify their bearing on the present. Not that history has the final word on what this or that term really signifies. Tracing the origins of a concept’s modern usage should not be thought of as a way to recover its “authentic” meaning. However, if a substantial revision has taken place in the conceptualization of reform, revolution, or resistance, we should be honest about this departure.

This is especially true with the category of “revolution,” which has undergone the most significant renovation in the discourse of #Occupy. For if reform was the most problematic figure of thought for Luxemburg in 1900, and resistance for Platypus five years ago, then the most pressing concept in need of clarification for the Left right now is revolution. If former conceptions of revolution prove to be inadequate or unrealistic, this does not mean we are forbidden from using the word, of course. But we should at least be clear about the break, so as to not fool ourselves that we are somehow remaining loyal to the good old cause.

Resistance

Of the three terms presently under investigation, “resistance” is the one of the most recent vintage, at least to the extent that it has been conceptualized and self-consciously used on the Left. A couple preliminary remarks help to focus the discussion.

First, as Stephen Duncombe pointed out a few years ago, the concept of “resistance” is inherently conservative.[2] It indicates the ability of something to maintain itself — i.e., to conserve or preserve its present state of existence — against outside influences that would otherwise change it. Resistance signifies not only defiance but also intransigence. As the editors of Upping the Anti put it a couple years back, “resistance” automatically assumes a “defensive posture.”[3] It thus appears to be politically ambivalent: it depends on what is being conserved and what is being resisted.[4]

Secondly, beyond its conceptual dimension, the language of “resistance” is linked to conservatism at an historical level as well. At least, this is how recalcitrant elements of society originally understood their opposition to the Left ever since its inception in 1789. Against the rationalism and excesses of the French Revolution, the British statesman and archconservative Edmund Burke praised England for its stubborn “resistance” to radical projects of political modernization. He wrote:

Thanks to our sullen resistance to innovation, thanks to the cold sluggishness of our national character, we still bear the stamp of our forefathers…We are not the converts of Rousseau; we are not the disciples of Voltaire; Helvétius has made no progress amongst us…We fear God; we look up with awe to kings; with affection to parliaments; with duty to magistrates; with reverence to priests; and with respect to nobility.[5]

As late as 1848, the term “resistance” was chiefly deployed by reactionaries. Under the July Monarchy of Louis Philippe, the conservative theorist and statesman Guizot led le parti de la Résistance against the more progressive Parti du mouvement. The influential anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon reproached his contemporaries, Louis Blanc and Pierre Leroux, along these lines in 1849, for their “resistance to the revolution.”[6] The forces of reaction in Europe were not merely content to “resist” revolution, however. Later, in the struggle for electoral reform in Britain in the 1830s, the Left once again had to contend with the “resistance” of conservative legislators.[7] During the 1860s, when a new Reform Bill threatened to extend the franchise to an even greater proportion of the population, a dissident segment of the Liberal Party — the “Adullamites” — motioned to resist these democratic measures. Engels’ judgment of this move was damning: “These Adullamites really are tremendous jackasses to put up such resistance to this pauvre Reform Bill, the most conservative thing that’s ever been done here [England].”[8]

François Guizot

François Guizot, of le parti de la Résistance

Only in the short twentieth century did “resistance” come to be associated with leftist politics, by virtue of a threefold historical development. First, it was ennobled through movements of opposition by colonial peoples in resisting imperial subjugation. But even here, the emancipatory character of “resistance” to imperialism was not always clear-cut. Lenin, whose theory of imperialism is so commonly invoked by Marxists and anarchists today, was wise enough not to offer unqualified support to just any movement claiming to “resist” imperialist aggression. Uprisings against imperialism led by regressive social elements do not deserve to be cheered along by the Left in lieu of progressive alternatives that may not exist.[9]

The concept of “resistance” was romanticized yet further through the experience of La Résistance in France fighting the collaborationist Vichy regime. Quite a few of the resistance’s most prominent heroes and martyrs belonged to the Communist movement. Even this case was not without its problems, however. The French Communists’ much-touted “resistance” to fascist rule bore throughout the indelible imprint of Stalinist pop-frontism. As some perceptive Trotskyist critics noticed already in 1939, the strategy of the Popular Front only siphoned off revolutionary energy from the more militant sections of the French labour movement, diverted into mindless campaigns of coalition building.[11] This is not to denigrate the sacrifice and valour of French resistance fighters, of course. It is only to point out the complex conditions under which such “resistance” took place.

Finally, in the hands of postmodern and postcolonial theory, “resistance” received the academy’s authoritative stamp of approval. It became consecrated as the standard mode of dissent under late capitalism. To provide just one example of the kind of needlessly baroque theoretical explanations given to “resistance” by postcolonialists, we need only look at Homi Bhabha’s 1994 work on The Location of Culture:

Resistance is not necessarily an oppositional act of political intention, nor is it the simple negation or exclusion of the “content” of another culture, as a difference once perceived. It is the effect of an ambivalence produced within the rules of recognition of dominating discourses as they articulate the signs of cultural difference and reimplicate them within the deferential relations of colonial power — hierarchy, normalization, marginalization and so forth. For colonial domination is achieved through a process of disavowal that denies the chaos of its intervention as Entstellung, its dislocatory presence in order to preserve the authority of its identity in the teleological narratives of historical and political evolutionism.[12]

For all his obscurity, Bhabha at least has the merit of elucidating the apolitical dimension of “resistance.” What is unclear from his explanation is whether a subject can actively “resist” forms of foreign, outside cultural domination “in order to preserve the authority” of more familiar, traditional, native, or “indigenous” forms of domination. Postcolonial theory must be understood within the context of the Cold War politics out of which it first emerged. With the decline of revolutionary leftist politics in the most advanced industrial nations of the world, hopes for radical social transformation migrated to what the French demographer Alfred Sauvy dubbed the “Third World.”[13] These hopes eventually reached their ideological apotheosis in what has come to be known as tiers-mondisme [“Third-Worldism”]. That is to say, in the global system divided into blocs between the “First World” (the U.S. and its allies) and the so-called “Second World” (the U.S.S.R. and its allies), the primary site of political struggle now shifted to the “Third World” (the non-affiliated countries, often ex-colonies of European nations).

Ironically, such sentiments often survived the actual ideologies that engendered them. Enthusiasm for national liberation movements in formerly colonized regions continued in Western activist circles long after the USSR and PRC in the East ceased funding them — the former following its dissolution in 1991, the latter after the coup d’état that overthrew the “Gang of Four” in 1976. At this point, the streams of postcolonialism (arising from capitalism’s periphery) and postmodernism (arising from its core) converged.[14] All the grand narratives of the past, it seemed, had collapsed. Edward Said’s Orientalism came out in 1978; Jean-François Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition was released a year later. Both works are generally considered seminal within the postcolonial and postmodern canons,respectively. Significantly, however, each tendency — that is, postcolonialism and postmodernism — may be regarded as an outcome of the practical exhaustion and theoretical confusion brought about by the failure of the New Left. Tired, disillusioned, and largely depoliticized, the radicals who comprised the New Left now joined the very institutions they once opposed, becoming full-time academics or professional activists.

Theory as resistance

Morton & Zavarzadeh’s Theory as resistance

The transformation of the New Left into the self-proclaimed “post-political” or “post-ideological” Left placed a new premium on the concept of cultural resistance.[15] Sadly, by the late 1970s, postcolonialism’s and postmodernism’s most valuable contributions to radical politics already belonged to the past. The Albert Memmi of The Colonizer and the Colonized and the Frantz Fanon of Black Skin, White Masks (not The Wretched of the Earth)[16] were superior to Said, as well as their own later incarnations. Said himself was vastly preferable to today’s figures, such as Bhabha, Spivak, or Chakrabarty. The same can basically be said of postmodernism. Lyotard the member of Socialisme ou Barbarie or theorist of postmodernism was far more worthwhile than Lyotard the relapsed Kantian aesthetician; the Baudrillard who wrote The Mirror of Production ought to be prioritized over the author who later wrote Simulacra and Simulation. Either way, postcolonial and postmodernism politics never aspired to anything more than “resistance” to a seemingly all-powerful system of neoliberalism and globalization.[17]

Such is the genealogy of “resistance” on the Left. Down at Liberty Plaza last fall one would regularly see signs that read (in a perverse Cartesianism): “I resist, therefore I exist.” The real efficacy of such resistance is difficult to ascertain, however. Recently, Marxian theorists such as Moishe Postone and Slavoj Žižek have suggested that politics based on resistance are often unwittingly complicit with the very systems they purport to resist.[18] It remains unclear, moreover, how resistance fits into any broader emancipatory program. As Chris Cutrone observes: “The Left today almost never speaks of freedom or emancipation, but only of ‘resistance’ to the dynamics of change associated with capital and its transformations.”[19]

Of course, this is not to deny any and all emancipatory power to acts of “resistance.” But “resistance” can really only be called upon to preserve those freedoms of which one already has possession, against forces that seek to limit them. In this sense, the politics of resistance do not go beyond the “right of resistance” proclaimed by early liberals such as John Locke, who in his Second Treatise on Government wrote that “they who use unjust force may be questioned, opposed, and resisted.”[20] An extension of inalienable bourgeois property, one possessed the right to protect his or her own “life and limbs.”

Reform

In its modern sense, “reform” stretches back quite a bit further. However, this should not be taken too far, to the point of anachronism. One might be tempted, for example, to include the Magna Carta in the history of reforms. It should be remembered, however, that the king’s concession to the feudal barony was not obtained through established legal channels, but at the tip of a sword.

Though the history of successful, sweeping reforms begins in Britain with the Great Reform Act of 1832, demands for reform had a significant prehistory (dating all the way back to 1745 by some estimates). Originally, the meaning of “reform,” stricto sensu, was specifically related to matters of enfranchisement — “an extension of the electorate,” as it were.[21] The earliest calls for parliamentary reform, in the decades following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, pertained to widespread political corruption. In 1776, the “radical” (as opposed to “moderate”) parliamentarian John Wilkes first advanced a proposal for universal male suffrage, largely as a reaction to the American War of Independence.[22] Nevertheless, such daring calls for democratization were highly anomalous at this point.

The Great Reform Act of 1832

The Great Reform Act of 1832

Clamoring for reform rapidly accelerated in the aftermath of the French Revolution of 1789, however.[23] Another great proponent of “radical” reform was the famous utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham. Even following Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo, on the eve of the Restoration, he posed the same disjunction Luxemburg would make eighty years later, albeit in a quite different register: “[T]he country…is already on the very brink — reform or convulsion, such is the alternative.”[24] As Bentham realized, the world revolution of 1789 — even in its degraded imperial form under Bonaparte — had placed certain demands on the governments of Europe. This not only in the territories that the “Little Corporal” had conquered on the continent, either: the revolutionary imprint of that fateful year traveled across the English Channel, as well. So despite the best reactionary efforts of Tsar Nikolai I of Russia and Count Metternich of Austria, Bentham still had the sense that something had irrevocably changed.

But Bentham would barely live to see the first fruits of his struggles for reform. The Great Reform Bill of 1832 granted broader voting rights to British adult males, at least in principle. Popular pressure for reforms had come in large part from the nascent labour movement. Despite its successful passage, the numerous deficiencies and compromises in the legislation, along with its suppression of more radical measures, led many of its supporters to believe that these reforms had not gone far enough. The Chartist movement grew out of this overwhelming sense of dissatisfaction and persecution.[25] Immediately following the enactment of the 1832 Bill — the foundational act in the history of modern reform — the terrain on which the battle for reforms was waged shifted. Reforms no longer centered exclusively on the issue of suffrage. Fresh on its heels came the Factory Act of 1833. Over the course of the next thirty years, the working class in Britain fought for the institution of regular limits to the working day. This was the struggle described in such riveting detail by Marx in Capital.[26]

Within the context of international Social Democracy, the struggle for reform was not conceived as separable from the goal of revolution until the end of the nineteenth century. The crisis of Second International Marxism that occurred during the Revisionist Debate of the 1890s was itself symptomatic of its success in building a mass movement. In other words, Bernstein’s contention that the working class could best realize its emancipation through a progression of social reforms[27] had itself been precipitated by the movement’s strength in achieving parliamentary representation. It only became possible through the further articulation of working-class politics in the years after Marx’s death. Reform, as Luxemburg argued, is not so much the antithesis of revolution as it is its practical result. The fact that reforms are even possible indicates that revolution is on the table.

New Deal WPA poster, 1930s

New Deal WPA poster, 1930s

However, the gains made through social reforms by the merging of European Social-Democracy (which drifted gradually rightward following 1914) and liberalism (drifting leftward in Keynesian guise after 1933) are presently deteriorating under cutbacks. “The abandonment of emancipatory politics in our time has not been, as past revolutionary thinkers may have feared, an abandonment of revolution in favor of reformism,” Spencer Leonard recently observed. “Rather, because the revolutionary overcoming of capital is no longer imagined, reformism too is dead.”[28] Political events over the course of this last year seem to confirm Leonard’s judgment. The faint murmurs that were heard early on in the #Occupy protests, which called for the reinstatement of Glass-Steagall or the creation of a “Jobs for All” program, have all but subsided. Placards have since appeared stating that “Capitalism cannot be Reformed.”

True enough. But what would reform even look like now that the Left is everywhere in retreat? Are the austerity measures in Europe, one wonders, examples of “reforms”? Bank bailouts and deregulation? Rescinded pensions and mass layoffs? Or has the fight for reforms instead moved toward a totally different modality of engagement, becoming a purely defensive battle upholding the reforms of the past against the neoliberal onslaught? Must the struggle for new reforms be put on hold, if not abandoned completely? And are we really obligated to defend the last miserable scraps of the welfare state — the gutted remains of social programs initiated over sixty years ago? Today, the options of “reform or revolution” seem rather the inevitability of “deform and devolution.”

Revolution

If today the question of reform has once again entered into crisis, this is because the concept of revolution has lost its self-evidence. Luxemburg’s rejoinder to Bernstein steadfastly asserted that “the conquest of political power has been the aim of all rising classes.”[29] And while Trotskii could categorically claim in 1924 — without hesitation — that “[b]y [revolutionary] strategy, we understand the art of conquest, i.e., the seizure of power”[30] it is not at all clear that this is still the case. The #Occupy movement has, by contrast, by and large followed the strategy formulated by the Marxian autonomist John Holloway in 2002, to “change the world without taking power.” The subtitle to Holloway’s book says it all: “The meaning of revolution today.”[31]

As with resistance and reform, the modern concept of revolution arose historically. It should not be elevated into a transhistorical principle simply by virtue of the venerable status it enjoys in leftist political discourse. As suggested earlier, “revolution” was born alongside the Left itself, as its conceptual twin. William Sewell has perhaps contributed the most to understanding this historical dimension of “revolution”:

We are by now used to the notion that revolutions are radical transformations in political systems imposed by violent uprisings of the people. We therefore don’t see the extraordinary novelty of the claim that the taking of the Bastille was an act of revolution. Prior to the summer of 1789, the word revolution did not carry the implication of a change of political regime achieved by popular violence…In ordinary parlance,…[t]he “uprising” or “mutiny” of July 14th could…be designated by contemporaries as a “revolution,” but this was…not because it was a self-conscious attempt by the people to impose by force its sovereign will.[32]

For Sewell, the concept of “revolution” — at least in its modern meaning — designates a momentous and irrevocable “event.” “[E]vents should be conceived of as sequences of occurrences that result in transformations of structures,” he explains. “Such sequences begin with a rupture…[and] durably [transform] previous structures and practices.”[33] Any revolution worthy of the name would thus seem to require a radical discontinuity with the past — “blasted out of the continuum of history,” as it were.[34] It would involve a sort of compressed temporality. Lenin is said to have once quipped that “there are decades where nothing happens; there are weeks when decades happen.” Revolution, in this model, would then necessarily hinge upon certain decisive moments — “turning points,” “breakthroughs,” “tipping points,” “points of no return,” “starts and fits,” etc. — moments after which nothing was ever the same, after which there was no going back. Removing these moments from a revolution would mean “reducing…[it] to [the] vague notion of a slow, even, gradual change, [with an] absence of leaps and storms.”[35]

Anonymous, La prise de la Bastille, le 14 juillet 1789

Anonymous, La prise de la Bastille, le 14 juillet 1789

Of course, a revolution cannot be accomplished all at once, in one fell swoop. At a certain level, there must be a dialectic between process and event involved in any truly revolutionary transformation. “The international revolution,” Trotskii always reminded, “constitutes a permanent process, despite temporary declines and ebbs.”[36] Nevertheless, Trotskii was always sure to stress the unevenness of this process. “[H]istoric processes are…far from consisting…in a steady accumulation and continual ‘improvement’ of that which exists. [History] has its transitions of quantity into quality, its crises, leaps, and backward lapses.”[37] Certainly, some continuity with the world before the revolution will remain, but there will be important discontinuities, as well. The structures of daily life would be radically rearranged, but certain prerevolutionary practices will no doubt endure for some time.

The understanding of “revolution” just sketched can be usefully contrasted with that of David Graeber, whose thought has undeniably served as one of #Occupy’s greatest sources of inspiration. Graeber provides the clearest expression of revolution as a kind of continuous, never-ending process unpunctuated by events. Accordingly, he rejects the notion of history as marked by qualitatively distinct “epochs”:

[T]here has been no one fundamental break in human history. No one can deny there have been massive quantitative changes: the amount of energy consumed, the speed at which humans can travel, the number of books produced and read…But…these quantitative changes do not…necessarily imply a change in quality: we are not living in a fundamentally different sort of society than has ever existed before, we are not living in a fundamentally different sort of time.[38]

In Graeber’s opinion, the mistake underlying these conceptions of revolution as rupture consists in their Lukácsean assumption that abstractions like “capitalism” or “society” exist as real totalities. “[T]he habit of thought which defines…society as a totalizing system,” Graeber argues, “tends to lead almost inevitably to a view of revolutions as cataclysmic ruptures.”[39] In place of this more traditional version of what revolution may look like, Graeber instead advocates a “prefigurative” politics of creating a microcosm of the society one would want to live in. This notion is not wholly without precedent: echoes can still be heard here of the old motto from the 1905 IWW Preamble, which prescribes “forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.” But it would be a mistake to think that all anarchists look to create models of prefiguration.

Among the #Occupy movement’s more militant sections, the French pamphlet on The Coming Insurrection still holds some weight. With its paramilitary pose and radical chic, its knowing matter-of-factness, the rhetoric from this mini-manifesto remains fashionable in some circles. The book refrains from glamorizing violence as such, but much of its appeal clearly comes from its literal call to arms: “Take up arms,” it advises. “There is no such thing as a peaceful insurrection. Weapons are necessary.”[40] The Coming Insurrection still pales in comparison to the bellicosity of past works from the anarchist canon (insofar as there is one). Certainly, anyone who has read the terrifying Catechism of a Revolutionary, co-authored by Bakunin and Nechaev in 1870, will look back at The Coming Insurrection as mere child’s play. Still, there are traces of the old revolutionary notion of irreversibility in the Invisible Committee’s “insurrection.” Nevertheless, the imagination of The Coming Insurrection is for the most part limited to the experience of the 2005 riots in the Paris banlieues scattered, largely local affairs. World revolution is nowhere to be found in its pages.

Russian Revolution, 1917

Nevskii Prospekt, Petrograd 1917

It should be emphasized that these concepts of revolution departs not only from most of those passed down by Marxist theory through the ages, but also from the majority of anarchist ideas concerning revolution prior to 1968. Giants of revolutionary anarchism like Bakunin, Nechaev, and Malatesta each adhered to the vision of a massive, sudden uprising, a simultaneous break with the past taking place on a worldwide scale.[41] Some, like Paul Brousse and Johann Most, advocated the “propaganda of the deed” — i.e., acts of spectacular terrorism — hoping to spur the masses to spontaneous action. Kropotkin understood “revolution” as “synonymous with…the toppling and overthrow of age-old institutions within the space of a few days, with violent demolition of established forms of property, with the destruction of caste, with the rapid change of received thinking.”[42] One would be hard-pressed to find any revolutionary program coming out of the Occupy movement with such ambitious scope or intensity.

Such departures from the way “revolution” was previously understood should not be thought unacceptable, of course. Trying to hold anyone (let alone an anarchist) to the authority of past thinkers would be an exercise in futility. The real question, it seems to me, is the following: What does it say about our own political moment that such past conceptions of revolution seem so outlandish, impossible, and unthinkable to us today? Were yesterday’s notorious revolutionaries simply deluded, mistaken, and misguided? Or is it rather that we stand on political ground that is considerably worse than they did? Do we perhaps today inhabit a world in which politics has substantially regressed from the historical position it held a century ago?

Reflections

Having discussed these three terms in relative isolation from each other, it is now perhaps appropriate to reflect on how they might fit together to form a politics of the present. In so doing, however, a fourth thought-figure intervenes: that of emancipation. Resistance, reform, and revolution are only meaningful to the extent that they realize emancipation as their end. It goes without saying that no single approach should be taken as the optimal solution in every case. Depending on the concrete contexts in which they move, different strengths and weaknesses are revealed.

Today, “resistance” seems to take the form of preserving past measures of “reform,” measures that only were only passed in the first place because “revolution” presented itself as a distinct possibility. In Europe, meanwhile, the welfare state — the crown jewel of nearly a century’s worth of Social Democracy — is unraveling at an alarming rate. Neoliberal austerity still seems the order of the day. The question is less which tactic or strategy to follow at present than it is to recognize what would be required to deploy them meaningfully. Resistance, reform, and revolution all aim to provide a solution to what Marx called “the riddle of history”: communism. To date, however, this riddle remains unsolved. In the absence of a viable international mass movement that could potentially overcome the rule of capital, answers are in short supply. Until such a movement is reconstituted, the only available options are micro-resistance, piecemeal reforms, and merely local/national revolutions — and the realization of total social and individual freedom is forestalled.

Notes


[1] Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. (Pantheon Publishers. New York, NY: 1978). Pg. 95.
[2] “[The] political beginnings [of resistance] in the West are conservative; this helps to explain some of the politics of resistance. It’s Edmund Burke, the British conservative, who actually counsels resistance against the radical change of the French Revolution in 1790. About 75 years later, the same call was taken up by Mathew Arnold, who essentially argues for culture as a means of resistance against the tides of anarchic progress…Resistance has this sort of conservative cast in the 18th and 19th centuries.” Albert, Michael; Cutrone, Chris; Duncombe, Stephen; and Holmes, Brian. “The 3 Rs: Reform, revolution, and ‘resistance’: The problematic forms of ‘anticapitalism’ today.” The Platypus Review. (№ 4. April, 2008).
[3] Upping the Anti editorial board. “With eyes wide open: Notes on crisis and resistance today.” Upping the Anti. (№ 10. May, 2010).
[4] To illustrate this ambivalence, it is only necessary to look at Resistance Records, a white power label founded in  1999.
[5] Burke, Edmund. Selected Works, Volume 2: Reflections on the Revolution in France. (Liberty Fund. Indianapolis, IN: 1999). Pg 180.
[6] Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph. Resistance to the revolution: Louis Blanc and Pierre Leroux. Translated by Benjamin R. Tucker. Property is Theft! An Anthology. (AK Press. Baltimore, MA: 2011). Pgs. 495-508.
[7] “Notwithstanding the enthusiasm of the people, the Bill of 1831 encountered obstinate resistance from the House of Commons.” Paul, Alexander. The History of Reform: A Record of the Struggle for the Representation of the People in Parliament. (George Routledge & Sons. New York, NY: 1884). Pg. 138.
[8] Engels, Friedrich. “Letter to Marx in London, May 1, 1866.” Translated by Christopher Upward. Collected Works, Volume 42: 1864-1868. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1987). Pg. 269.
[9] “Imperialism is as much our ‘mortal’ enemy as is capitalism. That is so. No Marxist will forget, however, that capitalism is progressive compared with feudalism, and that imperialism is progressive compared with pre-monopoly capitalism. Hence, it is not every struggle against imperialism that we should support. We will not support a struggle of the reactionary classes against imperialism; we will not support an uprising of the reactionary classes against imperialism and capitalism.
Consequently, once [one] admits the need to support an uprising of an oppressed nation (‘actively resisting’ suppression means supporting the uprising), he also admits that a national uprising is progressive, that the establishment of a separate and new state, of new frontiers, etc., resulting from a successful uprising, is progressive.” Lenin, Vladimir Il’ich. A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism. Translated by M.S. Levin, Joe Fineberg, and others. Collected Works, Volume 23: August 1916-March 1917. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1964). Pg. 63.
[10]
[11] “The tide of revolutionary unrest and the will to combat fascism rose high again in the French labour movement in 1934. The combined efforts of the Socialists and Stalinists succeeded in diverting the revolutionary ferment into the channels of popular frontism.” Spector, Maurice. “The Popular Front’s guilt.” New International. (Vol. 4, № 11: November 1938). Pg. 329.
[12] Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. (Routledge. New York, NY: 1994). Pgs. 110-111.
[13] Sauvy, Alfred. “The Third World.” Translated by Christophe Campos. General Theory of Population. (Basic Books. New York, NY: 1969). Pgs. 204-218.
[14] “[T]he significance of Maoism, through the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China, transformed from seeming to be relevant only to peasant guerilla-based revolutionism and ‘new democracy’ in the post-colonial periphery, to becoming a modern form of Marxism with potential radical purchase in the core capitalist countries.” Cutrone, Chris. “The relevance of Lenin today.”
[15] Said, Edward. “At the rendezvous of victory.” Culture and resistance: Conversations with Edward W. Said, Interviewed by David Barsamian. (South End Press. Cambridge, MA: 2003). Pg. 159.
[16] Singh, Sunit. “Book review: Frantz Fanon’s Black skin, white masks.” Platypus review.
[17] Of the two, Susan Buck-Morss was perhaps correct when she recently pronounced that postcolonialism still shows more promise than the “conceptual dead-end” of postmodernism. Even then, she pointed out, the former has run up against certain limitations: “The postcolonial moment entailed shifts in culture and in politics — but in economics, I’m not so sure.” Buck-Morss, Susan. “Postcolonialism or postmodernism? An interview conducted by Chris Mansour.” Platypus Review.
[18] “‘Resistance’ is rarely based on a reflexive analysis of possibilities for fundamental change that are both generated and suppressed by the dynamic heteronomous order of capital. ‘Resistance’ is an undialectical category that does not grasp its own conditions of possibility; it fails to grasp the dynamic historical context of capital and its reconstitution of possibilities for both domination and emancipation, of which the ‘resisters’ do not recognize that that they are a part.” Postone, Moishe. “History and Helplessness: Mass Mobilization and Contemporary Forms of Anticapitalism.” Public Culture. (Vol. 18, № 1: 2006). Pg. 108.
Žižek, in criticizing Foucault’s notion of resistance, writes: “It is Foucault who insists on the immanence of resistance to Power, [but] it is Lacan who allows us to conceptualize the distinction between imaginary resistance (false transgression that reasserts the symbolic status quo and even serves as a positive condition of its functioning) and actual symbolic rearticulation via the intervention of the Real of an act.” Žižek, Slavoj. The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology. (Verso Books. New York, NY: 2000). Pg. 262.
[19] Cutrone, Chris. “The 3 Rs: Reform, revolution, and ‘resistance’.”
[20] Locke, John. Second Treatise on Government. (Cambridge University Press. New York, NY: 2003). Pgs. 402-403. §207.
[21] “At what date does the story of Reform begin? The period most vividly associated with the word Reform in the mind of the modern politician is little more than half a century past; but the great struggle which culminated in the Act of 1832 had its real beginnings at a much earlier date…Such a convenient date is 1745.” Paul, Alexander. The History of Reform: A Record of the Struggle for the Representation of the People in Parliament. (George Routledge & Sons. New York, NY: 1884). Pgs. 1-2.
[22] Ibid., pgs. 16-19.
[23] “[N]umerous popular societies sprang into existence, the aim of which was always Parliamentary Reform. The revolutionary proceedings in France heightened the prevailing excitement.” Ibid., pgs. 61-62.
[24] Bentham, Jeremy. “Plan of Parliamentary Reform, in the form of a Catechism, Showing the Necessity of Radical, and the Inadequacy of Moderate, Reform.” Collected Works, Volume 3. (Oxford University Press. New York, NY: 2012). Pg. 433.
[25] “[I]n England the Civil War and ‘Glorious Revolution’ of the 17th century made possible what came to seem a compromise. The Whigs’ Reform Act of 1832 extended the electoral franchise to a good section of the middle class, but the working class, who supported the Whigs’ Reform agitation, remained excluded from the franchise. Throughout the 1830s the radical press was persecuted, trade unionists transported, Ireland subjected to paramilitary police terror, and the hated workhouse system established by the New Poor Law.” Black, David. “The elusive ‘threads of historical progress’: The early chartists and the young Marx and Engels.” (№ 36. December 2011-January 2012).
[26] Marx, Capital: A critique of political economy, volume 1. Pgs. 389-411.
[27] “[The proletariat’s] influence would be much greater than it is today, if Social Democracy could find the courage to emancipate itself from phraseology that is, in fact, obsolete and to make up its mind to appear what it is in reality today: a democratic socialist party of reform.” Bernstein, Eduard. The Preconditions of Socialism. Translated by Henry Tudor. (Cambridge University Press. New York, NY: 1993). Pg. 186.
[28] Leonard, Spencer. “The decline of the Left in the twentieth century: 2001.” Platypus Review. (№ 17. November 18th, 2009). Pg. 2.
[29] “Legislative reform and revolution are not different methods of historic development; they are different factors in the development of class society.” Luxemburg, Rosa. Reform or Revolution? Translated by Integer. (Haymarket Books. Chicago, IL: 2008). Pg. 89.
[30] Trotskii, Leon. Lessons of October. Translated by John G. Wright. (Bookmarks. London, England: 1987). Pg. 16.
[31] “This…is the revolutionary challenge at the beginning of the twenty-first century: to change the world without taking power.” Holloway, John. Change the World without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today. (Pluto Press. Ann Arber, MI: 2010). Pg. 20.
[32] Sewell, William. “Historical Events as Transformations of Structures: Imagining the Revolution at the Bastille.” Logics of history: Social theory and social transformation. (The University of Chicago Press. Chicago, IL: 2005). Pg. 235.
[33] Ibid., pg. 227. My emphasis.
[34] Benjamin, Walter. “On the Concept of History.” Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Selected Writings, Volume 4: 1938-1940. (Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA: 2003). Pg. 395.
[35] Lenin, Vladimir. The State and Revolution: The Marxist Theory of the State and the Tasks of the Proletariat in the Revolution. Translated by Stepan Apresyan and Jim Priordan. Collected Works, Volume 25: June-September 1917. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1974). Pg. 401.
[36] Trotskii, Leon. The Permanent Revolution. Translated by John G. Wright and Brian Pearce. The Permanent Revolution & Results and Prospects. (Pathfinder Press. New York, NY: 1978). Pg. 133.
[37] Trotskii, Leon. The Revolution Betrayed: What is the Soviet Union and Where is it Going? Translated by Max Eastman. (Pathfinder Press. New York, NY: 1983). Pg. 48.
[38] Graeber, David. Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. (Prickly Paradigm Press. Chicago, IL: 2004). Pg. 50.
[39] Ibid., pgs. 43-44.
[40] The Invisible Committee. The Coming Insurrection. (Semiotex(t)e. 2006). Pg. 84.
[41] In order to destroy the “formidable reactionary coalition” inside Europe, Bakunin called on “the greater power of the simultaneous revolutionary alliance and action of all the people of the civilized world.” Bakunin, Mikhail. Revolutionary Catechism. Translated by Sam Dolgoff. Bakunin on Anarchy. (Vintage Books. New York, NY: 1972). Pg. 96.
[42] Kropotkin, Petr. “Revolutionary Government?” Translated by Paul Sharkey. No Gods, No Masters. (AK Press. Oakland, CA: 2005). Pg. 313.

4 thoughts on “Reflections on resistance, reform, and revolution

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