On September 14th, 2015, in the thralls of the presidential primaries for the 2016 election, Vermont senator and then-candidate Bernie Sanders delivered a speech at the private, right-wing Evangelical Liberty University. Seated about half-way up the bleachers of the arena, I and my questioning mind were rapt, clinging onto every brash syllable.
“We are living in a time — and I warn all of you if you would, put this in the context of the Bible, not me, in the context of the Bible — we are living in a time where a handful of people have wealth beyond comprehension… But at that very same moment, there are millions of people in our country, let alone the rest of the world, who are struggling to feed their families.”
After having deconstructed the fundamentalist faith and worldview of my childhood, I was in the dire need of something new; like the clay-formed Adam anticipating the breath of God, I required an animating force by which to invigorate the person I was becoming, and, in so doing, the man that was me served as the Kharon that would ferry him to Hades — the new me looked back as Orpheus unto Eurydice, and, with a bittersweet recollection, the person of my birth was allowed to comprehend his own passing. To the at-once slated blank-slate that I was, these words would serve as the cornerstone of my future.
“δὶς ἐς τὸν αὐτὸν ποταμὸν οὐκ ἂν ἐμβαίης
You could not step into the same river twice.”
-Heraclitus, As quoted in Plato, Cratylus, 402a
Though I would far more readily classify myself as some variant of revolutionary socialist these days, I am deeply indebted to the gateway of social democracy. To that end, it would likely be far more efficacious to refer to the various viewpoints perceivably encapsulated by the tagline “progressive” not in terms of distinct boxes but as various regions of some three or four dimensional modal spectrum wherein miscellaneous inclinations toward one or other view constitute switches that shift some coordinate or another and thus one closer to or farther away from the essence by which any one particular view might be defined. Teleologically, or empirically, one may also view one or several views on this continuum as being the logical or historical necessitation of the ones in some way anterior.
With that framework in mind, what, then, is the difference between reform social liberalism and revolutionary socialism per Karl Marx or Rosa Luxemburg par excellence? Furthermore, if there is a fundamental difference between reform and revolution, how do they compare in resolving structural inequalities? Lastly, what is meant by revolution?
“It is not true that socialism will arise automatically from the daily struggle of the working class. Socialism will be the consequence of (1), the growing contradictions of capitalist economy and (2), of the comprehension by the working class of the unavoidability of the suppression of these contradictions through a social transformation. When, in the manner of revisionism, the first condition is denied and the second rejected, the labour movement finds itself reduced to a simple co-operative and reformist movement. We move here in a straight line toward the total abandonment of the class viewpoint.”
-Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution, Chp. 5
In this chapter of discourse, Luxemburg critiques the reformist Marxism of those like Eduard Bernstein by claiming that these attenuated socialistic forms divorce the understanding of sociopolitical and economic praxis from the materialist science inherent to the historical dialectic. By doing so, Luxemburg argues, they fall back into the trap of base idealism, which she rejects on the basis that “there are no eternal truths” (Reform or Revolution, section II., para. 1). However, this argument seems to miss a crucial point. Human beings, being rational actors, whether merely of free action without immediate coercion or with the inherent capacity for more libertarian notions of free will, are the arbiters of change within their ecosystem; if the actions of a collective and the theories, beliefs, and intuitions upon which they are predicated can in no way be causally separated from the environmental factors through which they are formed, they are, then, at the least, another step in the chaotic chain through which contradictions are resolved. Thesis and antithesis must, as ever, be synthesized in the domain of man.
To utilize the explanatory power of this mindset toward answering some of the questions aforementioned, what might we say of propaganda, and, further, what concern, if any, should a Marxist have in regard to reform? If one might draw a thought experiment from biology, the hummingbird hawk-moth, Macroglossum stellatarum, has developed, evolutionarily, to appear as a hummingbird; in a like manner, capitalistic propaganda is merely an epochal defense mechanism by which the bourgeois attempt to shrug off, like Atlas, the crushing weight of historical necessity. It, like their death throes, is material.
I would like to argue, then, from here forward, that reform is merely a method by which the revolution might take place. In this form of discourse, it is typically asserted that a system cannot be utilized to propagate its own self-destruction, but an orthodox Marxist reading of the dialectical shift of capitalism to socialism might indicate otherwise. It must always be the system in place, materially, that acts as its own Ouroboros, eating itself alive as it becomes ever fatter. The what here is guaranteed; the how is quite open to interpretation.
Furthermore, such a critique makes a category error of the likes of Meno’s Paradox, “How will you aim to search for something you do not know at all? If you should meet with it, how will you know that this is the thing that you did not know?” (Meno, Plato, 80d). Were one to know that someone is holding an event, and they were to know a friend of theirs has knowledge of when said event is to start, they would know what their friend knows and yet, until they asked, not actually know when the event begins. There is quite a difference between having the aim of one’s inquiry and the answer thereto. In a like manner, a society is an amalgamation of ever-shifting laws and intrinsic as well as extrinsic hierarchies of organization; there are so many moving parts at play, here, I argue that system must mean both the maximally-inclusive boundary of a delineated society as well as the many levers of control available therein. You may, then, utilize the latter to affect the former.
Finally, what, you might ask, would this kind of revolution look like in practicum? Well, the answer is quite boring. We vote — in many cases — for the lesser of two evils, recognizing that our vote carries far more weight than is too often felt by our privileged hands, held up and in place by the silver strings of time. Next, we organize and overcome first-past-the-post voting, even as we attempt to hamstring the lobbying industry that manufactures ever-more levels of separation between the common person and the democratic process, the pressure of which upon the aristocracy is the guarantor of our freedoms. Lastly, we fight back, but in constant recollection of the material necessity available to the eyes on the ground level of every incident: the fire may yet rage, but it needs its kindling, or, else, it is just smoke, dancing in front of and obfuscating the mirrors by which we might self-reflect and change. We must be the instruments of capitalism’s downfall, bearing witness to, through our lives, the contradictions it manifests. Without the consent of the electorate, all change is but a temporary fluctuation to be brought back in line by the axiomatic control of the status quo — socialism must be by, of, and through the will of the people. It is not to say that it is quite in our power to actualize change that has not yet been made systemically attainable. We must, however, recognize our place in history.
Revolution, in this sense, becomes something quite apart from what one might induce from the violent upheavals of the American, French, Bolshevik, or even (the quite ironically named) “Bloodless” Revolutions. It is, simply, the historically-necessary, societally-mediated mechanism of paradigm shift, a maturation of the fermenting bloom experienced by every collective of interrelated forces from the dawn of man forward (to a more instinctual extent, from the moment of abiogenesis, and from a certain perspective, arguably from the creation of the Cosmos). The birth of socialism is merely one particular step in this chain, a drawing forward of mankind toward maximal economic democracy, and the only cogent critique one might give for reformism is its capacity to, via the movement of the proverbial goalposts, slow the eventuality of said progress. This, to me, however, seems like a petty theft in comparison to the Vanguardist bloodshed of the USSR or Maoist China. In the end, regardless, despite the changes precipitated by the intervening 153 years between today and the publishing of Das Kapital, Marxist arguments still obtain. The aeon march on to a drum beat all but hidden to us, and we are but in the midst of our revolution.
Cillizza, C. (2015, September 14). Bernie Sanders’s Liberty University speech, annotated. Retrieved October 30, 2020, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/09/14/bernie-sanders-liberty-university-speech-annotated/
Plato, and G. M. A. Grube. 1976. Plato’s Meno. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co.
Luxemburg, R. (1986). Reform or Revolution. London, UK: Militant Publications.
Reeve, C. D. C., 1997, Plato, Cratylus: translated with introduction and notes, Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett; reprinted in J.M. Cooper. (ed.) Plato, Complete Works, Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett.