The inescapable duty of a socialist revolutionary is to perceive the changes taking place in society which sharpen the class struggle and act on those changes without hesitation. Any socialist or socialist organization which fails to do so cannot be considered a defender of the proletariat (the working class), much less a revolutionary. A failure to perceive the sharpening of class contradictions, especially when that sharpening leads to the creation of a revolutionary situation, consigns the proletariat first to disorganized, spontaneous struggle and then to violent repression and defeat at the hands of the state. Socialist revolutionaries cannot, under any circumstances, believe they have the right to stand idly by while the masses are ground to nothing beneath the tank treads of capitalist oppression. Revolutionaries must instead take decisive action, educating and organizing the proletariat in order to lead them to the ultimate overthrow of bourgeois rule.
This critical perception is granted by the application of historical materialism. In 1915, Lenin described the conditions which indicate the rise of a “revolutionary situation” — a situation wherein the bourgeoisie can be overthrown and replaced with a dictatorship of the proletariat. The three conditions he described can be summarized as (1) when the ruling class is unable to maintain the status quo of their rule, (2) when there is a marked increase in suffering among the oppressed, and (3) when there is increasing resistance from the oppressed against their oppression. If we analyze the current conditions of the class struggle in the U.S., there can be no doubt that the U.S. has entered into a revolutionary situation.
Death of the ‘old way’
To better understand this, we must look at exactly what Lenin said in “The Collapse of the Second International” and examine the conditions of the ruling class and proletariat in the U.S. Describing the first point, Lenin said:
“What, generally speaking, are the symptoms of a revolutionary situation? We shall certainly not be mistaken if we indicate the following three major symptoms: (1) when it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change; when there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the ‘upper classes,’ a crisis in the policy of the ruling class, leading to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth. For a revolution to take place, it is usually insufficient for ‘the lower classes not to want’ to live in the old way; it is also necessary that ‘the upper classes should be unable’ to live in the old way.”
Lenin tells us that during a revolutionary situation, “it is impossible for the ruling class to maintain their rule without any change.” In other words, the traditional methods of governing the proletariat either have failed, or will fail in the near future, and therefore the ruling class is forced to change policy in contradiction with their established preference. A failure to make this change would otherwise result in systemic collapse.
Lenin goes on to clarify that this inability to maintain the status quo constitutes a crisis for the ruling class. Specifically, it is a crisis of policy. The established methods of government are no longer producing desirable results and the ensuing problems create a “fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth.”
Is there today a “crisis in the policy of the ruling class” in the U.S.? No, there are several. Both the bourgeois state and its political administrators are currently experiencing multiple crises in policy. It is common that capitalist exploitation makes it so that “the lower classes [do not] want to live in the old way.” If that were the only obstacle, the bourgeoisie, with its superior force, could compel the proletariat to obey. But the nature of the current crisis makes it so that “the upper classes [are] unable to live in the old way”; both the coercive (military) and persuasive (political) power of the ruling class is waning.
Consider the situation faced by the state. Engels defined the state as the armed defenders of the bourgeoisie; the police, military, courts, and jails. These armed forces which defend bourgeois rule have been engulfed in a gradually unfolding crisis for the last 20 years.
The attempt by U.S. imperialists to occupy, terrorize, and exploit the resources of Southwest Asia and North Africa has been a disaster for the U.S. military. The U.S. hubristically believed that they could easily occupy this region, but local resistance to imperialism broke the body of the U.S. military on the mountains of Afghanistan and strangled it in the alleys of Fallujah.
These failed invasions have had a tremendous impact on U.S. soldiers. Army officers complain that they are no longer able to reach their recruitment goals (tinyurl.com/yapzx4p6), members of U.S. death squads (referred to as “special forces”) are worn out from repeated deployment and seeking early retirement (tinyurl.com/ya2e3s3s) and drone operators are experiencing high levels of PTSD in spite of their distance from the victims of their bombing missions. (tinyurl.com/y832qj7n) This is a military that has been ground down to the nub.
And what of the domestic soldiers of capital? Should the proletariat rise up, local law enforcement will be the first line of defense for the bourgeoisie. But their situation is equally dire. For example, police officials in New York City are complaining that morale is plummeting and retirement applications are rising. (tinyurl.com/y7rg3y6s) These agents of repression are wilting beneath the glare of public scrutiny. The police are finally realizing that they are despised by all those who loathe oppression and that the world recognizes them as a violent white supremacist militia. They cannot tolerate the justified condemnation that comes with their actions.
The Border Patrol, whose long history of atrocities only came to national attention as their crimes crescendoed during the Trump administration, are suffering a similar dilemma. Fewer people are willing to join their despised agency and their ranks are depressed by the flood of condemnation that they’ve received. (tinyurl.com/y3neksb2) How long can U.S. law enforcement endure declining recruitment, surging retirement, and deteriorating morale?
The weakening of the state creates a need for the political elite to assuage the anger of the masses through soft words and false promises. But there is currently a failure by the bourgeoisie to control the conversation. Their traditional domination of the media, along with byzantine restrictions on ballot access and public debate qualifications, had previously prevented even the most tepid left critiques from being aired on a national stage. But the increase in exploitation, the explosion of popular movements, and the expansion of social media have led to a leftward shift in public discourse.
The most well-known representatives of this shift — Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, et al. — are right-opportunists who seek not the destruction of capitalism, but its maintenance, and must therefore be named as such if we seek to educate the masses rather than deceive them. However, the popular source of this political shift comes from a revolutionary impulse on the part of the masses. It is only the lack of political organization, the absence of a vanguard party, that has allowed for the corruption of revolutionary slogans and demands — for the adulteration and declawing of these popular ambitions. The clearest example of this was the transformation of the Black radical slogan “Abolish the Police” into the reformist “Defund the Police,” the latter of which has been seized by the Democratic Party and used as a police baton to smash in the teeth of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Make no mistake, the creatures who lurk in Washington do not want to talk about abolishing or defunding the police. They do not want to kneel before adolescent protesters to take part in a moment of silence (politicians love nothing more than the sound of their own voice). And they have no interest in draping themselves in Kente cloths or in African culture generally. They do these things not because they want to, but because they have been forced to. They have been forced by the righteous rebellion of the multi-nationational proletariat which has shaken a country and set a police precinct ablaze.
Prior to the George Floyd uprising, the bourgeoisie had concentrated its energy to fend off a second Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. While the undermining of his movement may seem like a victory for liberal capitalism, the mere existence of such a political run shows the failure of a previously closed political system that had functioned flawlessly for decades.
Twenty years ago, a candidate like Bernie Sanders would not have made it onto the debate stage, much less the final lap of the Democratic presidential primary. The Democratic Party, leal and loyal servants of insurance companies and banks, have no intention whatsoever of providing universal healthcare, a living wage, or a reprieve from crushing student loans. Candidates proposing such policies had previously been dismissed by obedient pundits as cranks and laughed off stage.
But both the press and politicians have lost the power to silence candidates like Bernie Sanders. This is because Sanders’ policies are backed by a popular proletarian movement which is angrily demanding all of what he has promised and more. The bipartisan attack on Sanders only exposed the fact that the political establishment are the enemy of the proletariat and the servants of big business. This exposure has forced the Democratic Party to be circumspect in their dismissals of Bernie Sanders and the socialist movement at large.
All of these changes in behavior are very unusual for the bourgeoisie, and revolutionaries should not fail to notice this change along with the discomfort it has caused among the ruling class. They are unable to live in the old way.
Describing the second symptom of a revolutionary situation, Lenin says it is:
“(2) when the suffering and want of the oppressed classes have grown more acute than usual.”
History has shown that the oppressed classes can endure tremendous suffering for very long periods without protest. A peculiar aspect of human nature is that a sudden increase in cruelty, even if brief, often provokes a stronger reaction than a prolonged yet unchanging policy of inhumane treatment. And so, Lenin explains that the sharpening of contradictions, the increase in exploitation, a rise in suffering — portends danger for the bourgeoisie.
Over the past several decades, wages for workers have remained almost completely flat, in spite of increasing productivity. With each passing year, the capitalists steal an increasingly large share of surplus value (profits) from workers, causing their wealth to skyrocket. This increase in exploitation first hit a crisis point with the 2008 recession, but the failure to make substantive changes has only seen problems worsen. Now, with the COVID pandemic, the contradictions of capitalism have become razor sharp. As WW recently reported, “[t]he statistics are damning: One in six households face hunger; one in five workers are out of work; some 30 million renters and homeowners face homelessness in the coming winter months. The COVID death toll will hit 300,000 any day now. The virus is now the leading cause of death in the U.S., passing heart disease and cancer. Hospitals are unable to cope with the surge in COVID cases.” (tinyurl.com/y62s2du7)
In addition to the rising pain of economic exploitation, there is also a perceived rise in the state’s use of violence. Because the state, in callous disregard for the value of Black lives, does not even bother to track police killings, we will never know for sure if there has been an uptick in recent years. What we do know is that the proliferation of camera phones has lead to an increase in exposure of those police crimes. Many in the Black and Brown communities have spoken about police abuse for decades. But it is only with the new phenomenon of officers being regularly recorded that no one in the U.S. — even the most reactionary — can turn away from the damning truth.
Even for those in the oppressed community, while they may have been aware of police abuse in their neighborhood, they previously could not have been certain that police in another town, city, or state practiced the same terrorism. Now, Black and Brown people in Ferguson, Missouri, know that their struggle is the same as those in Staten Island, New York. A digital stream connects the hearts of millions of oppressed people across the country, linking a collective pain and a collective cry for dignity. People of color have awoken in a United States where the vile racist terrorism of the police is on display and undeniable, and that spike in outrage and consciousness is the spark which has lit a movement.
The suffering of the oppressed has grown more acute than usual, and the oppressed have grown more acutely aware of that suffering.
Lenin describes the third symptom of a revolutionary situation thusly:
“… (3) when, as a consequence of the above causes, there is a considerable increase in the activity of the masses, who uncomplainingly allow themselves to be robbed in ‘peace time,’ but, in turbulent times, are drawn both by all the circumstances of the crisis and by the ‘upper classes’ themselves into independent historical action.”
It has been firmly established that the crisis of bourgeois rule has resulted in “turbulent times.” But have these crises led to an increase in activity on the part of the masses? In 2011, after being plunged into an economic recession, the Occupy movement challenged the rule of Wall Street and quickly spread across the country. The proletariat began to understand the division between workers and capitalists, declaring the power of “the 99%.” Encampments were established in defiance of local authorities and clashes between police and demonstrators broke out. The rash of occupations was deemed so threatening to the bourgeoisie that a country-wide crackdown was launched, smashing the Occupy movement with brutal violence.
In 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was murdered by a white supremacist vigilante. In response, several queer Black women created the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Following the police lynchings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, the hashtag exploded into a movement and a battle against police occupation began. Highways, bridges, and entire cities were shut down by the surging masses.
In 2016, the fight of Indigenous water protectors against the Dakota Access Pipeline drew country-wide attention. The struggle at Standing Rock re-exposed the ongoing colonization and exploitation of Indigenous land. An outpouring of solidarity followed, with activists traveling across the country to join the fight against resource extraction in spite of the horrifically violent suppression tactics used by police and private security.
It would be impractical to produce a year-by-year analysis of mass action from 2011 to the present. Suffice it to say that we have just now witnessed the second surge of the Black Lives Matter movement, which may be the largest political demonstration in U.S. history. (tinyurl.com/y8qt9ftc)
This latest campaign against police terrorism was so fierce that police in Minneapolis (near the site of George Floyd’s murder) were forced into full retreat, abandoning their own police precinct to be incinerated by the crowd. Similar battles took place in other cities. It should not be understated what a tremendous blow this was to the morale of the police — as discussed earlier — and a boon to the confidence of the oppressed, obliterating forever the myth of the state’s invulnerability.
It should be further noted that this action is, as Lenin stated, independent of the ruling class. The masses have taken matters into their own hands, attempting to directly alter the relationship between capital and workers, the police and the oppressed, planet destroyers and water protectors. This is precisely the independent action, which has — and will continue to — impact on the course of history, which Lenin describes as the third symptom of a revolutionary situation.
Having established that the masses have been drawn into independent historical action, it is important to distinguish between this action and the creation of revolutionary class consciousness. The fact that the masses are in motion does not necessarily mean that they have correctly identified the causes of their oppression, much less developed an effective plan for defeating it. This level of understanding can only be arrived at with the intervention of a revolutionary socialist party that actively agitates, educates, and organizes the masses — leading them in class struggle.
The foregoing analysis has established that all three criteria set out by Lenin for the identification of a revolutionary situation are currently satisfied in the U.S. today. But the duty of a revolutionary does not end with the identification of a phenomenon; a true revolutionary must act on their analysis. “Socialist parties are not debating clubs, but organizations of the fighting proletariat. …”
What is to be done?
A critical point must now be addressed; namely that a “revolutionary situation” is not a revolution. A government in crisis can recover. In “The Collapse of the Second International,” Lenin explained that there have been many revolutionary situations that did not carry over into revolution, and that the determining factor was the subjective change of revolutionary mass action:
“The totality of all these objective changes is called a revolutionary situation. Such a situation existed in 1905 in Russia, and in all revolutionary periods in the West; it also existed in Germany in the sixties of the last century, and in Russia in 1859-61 and 1879-80, although no revolution occurred in these instances. Why was that? It was because it is not every revolutionary situation that gives rise to a revolution; revolution arises only out of a situation in which the above-mentioned objective changes are accompanied by a subjective change, namely, the ability of the revolutionary class to take revolutionary mass action strong enough to break (or dislocate) the old government, which never, not even in a period of crisis, ‘falls,’ if it is not toppled over.”
This point is vital for two reasons. The first is that a revolutionary situation is a temporary, transient state. It is an opportunity for revolutionary change that can easily be squandered and lost by a dilatory, indecisive vanguard — with disastrous consequences for the proletariat. Such a disaster must be averted at all costs.
The second factor is that we must develop an understanding of the “subjective change” referred to. What is “revolutionary mass action” and how can it develop the strength to topple the bourgeoisie?
Herein lies the role of the socialist vanguard party. The masses can only build their strength if they are being organized. The communist method of organizing (or “deep organizing”) was developed and used by communists in every successful socialist revolution in history. It is a process that can be summed up as agitation, education, inoculation, and organization.
Cadre must engage in agitation among the masses whenever possible, stirring the masses to indignation and helping them to understand who their class enemies are. Education is vital so that the masses understand the nature of that class enemy and the correct tactics for defeating them. In order to prepare the masses for the rigors of the struggle, they must be inoculated — informed of the enemy’s tactics so they are not demoralized when the ruling class and the state respond. When all this is done, the masses can be drawn into organizations which concentrate worker power against the bourgeoisie. Returning to Lenin:
“What we are discussing is the indisputable and fundamental duty of all socialists — that of revealing to the masses the existence of a revolutionary situation, explaining its scope and depth, arousing the proletariat’s revolutionary consciousness and revolutionary determination, helping it to go over to revolutionary action, and forming, for that purpose, organizations suited to the revolutionary situation.”
We see here that Lenin describes the process of agitation (arousing the proletariat’s consciousness), education (explaining its scope and depth), inoculation (revolutionary determination), and building organizations (suited to the revolutionary situation) as an “indisputable and fundamental duty.” The process of deep organizing is not optional and requires serious study by any dedicated revolutionary.
So too does the forming of revolutionary organizations. During the Russian Revolution, these organizations were called “Soviets” (Russian for “council”) and allowed the peasantry and proletariat to develop a parliament of the oppressed which challenged bourgeois-landlord order. The establishment of a competing worker/peasant government created a situation of “dual power” wherein only one power could survive. This is the only path to socialist revolution, the only means of harnessing the potential of a revolutionary situation.
We stand now at the juncture of revolution or ruin, socialism or barbarism, exalted victory or ruinous defeat. The stakes could not be higher. The path before us is both clear and yet overcast with the shadow of danger. We understand our concrete conditions and we know our task. The question facing communists is not, are we in a revolutionary situation but, “What are you going to do about it?”