Reflections on resistance, reform, and revolution

The problematic forms of
contemporary anticapitalism

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


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. Continue reading