Rick Amherst offers their assesment of CounterPower’s most recent book ‘Organizing for Autonomy’
Counterpower, a revolutionary communist organization, published their book Organizing for Autonomy in October 2020 when the embers of the George Floyd Uprising were still hot.
The uprising showed the courage of the masses, their frustration with all that is rotten in this society, and the sheer magnitude of people willing to put their bodies on the line to resist. One can scarcely think of a better time to release a strategic blueprint or a compilation of practical lessons extracted from the long arc of proletarian history.
Unfortunately, the methodology and conclusions found in Organizing for Autonomy are wildly off base and this book has little to offer to make the next major uprising a bona fide revolution.
A Scientific Method for Evaluating Past Experiences
No revolutionary movement of the nineteenth, twentieth, or twenty-first century has emerged out of capitalism or feudalism and achieved communism– a classless, stateless society with material abundance. In this sense, all communist movements– Marxist and otherwise– have been failures.
But not all failures are equal. Some communist movements have beaten back the biggest imperialist invasions in human history; some have raised the living standards of hundreds of millions of people; some have overthrown capitalist or semi-feudal states; some have explored outer space and have presided over historic technological innovations.
Other movements have succeeded only in publishing polemics, winning an odd concession in a single issue campaign, and occasionally getting their members arrested.
To say that Leninism’s victories have been, without exception, partial victories is not to say they have been only minor victories.
These movements, even as ultimate failures, completely tower over all other trends on the revolutionary left, including anarchism, autonomism, democratic socialism, and more. To really learn the lessons of history and make the best use of our revolutionary legacy, we must subject all historical class struggles to principled scrutiny.
But we must be mindful not to equate the world-historic partial successes of the Russian and Chinese Revolutions with catastrophic failures like Italy’s autonomist movement. We must primarily correct and draw from the most successful examples, not merely cherrypick methods and strategies from total failures.
Regarding such total failures, we should mostly ask which factors caused them to fail, and which factors did they fail in spite of. Regarding partial success, we must also identify which factors they succeeded because of, which factors they succeeded in spite of, which factors were unique to their situation, and which factors can be generalized to other capitalist societies.
Such a method requires in-depth analyses of communist organizations and movements in their historical context, and in comparison with other groups to find what works.
It also requires experimentation. For instance, Che Guevara attempted to discern why the Cuban Revolution had triumphed and export those methods elsewhere. His hypotheses (chief among them that the long, slow work of party-building may be replaced by a foco of guerrillas able to spark a social revolution by taking bold action, regardless of whether they have a mass base) may have seemed sound at the time, but in retrospect we understand that, given focoismo’s failures, Che failed to grasp how uniquely weak the Batista dictatorship was, as well as which factors the Cuban revolution succeeded in spite of (no party with a pre-existing mass base).
Shockingly, Counterpower absolutely rejects this historical methodology. Citing Mario Tronti, they write,
“‘An organization ought to be judged not for the results it has bequeathed over the course of its long-term historical development… but for the political function it fulfilled in the given moment in which it emerged.’ “ (pg. 144)
It is true that we need to judge organizations in the context of the conjunctures in which they found themselves, but we must also judge their long-term effectiveness.
We must ask what degree of effectiveness they had in making revolution. All revolutionary movements bequeath us with positive and negative lessons, but it is reasonable that more successful movements will generally provide us with more positive lessons, and less successful movements will give us more lessons on what not to do. The problem with judging an organization at only one moment in its development is that time doesn’t work that way.
Dialectics reminds us that time is always advancing and everything is always in state of development and change. One moment becomes another moment; one conjuncture is becoming exhausted as a new one arises.
It won’t do to say that a group did something fascinating in one moment and then neglect to interrogate if that innovation contributed to the success or failure of a revolution.
We cannot understand the effectiveness, for instance, of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers by looking at their tactics and strategies from 1969 without also looking at why they fizzled out a few years later. For Counterpower, that fizzling out doesn’t matter. They write:
“In the Summer of 1973– after the League had dissolved [why did it dissolve? Counterpower does not consider this question worthy of an answer]– a wave of wildcat strikes was unleashed in three Chrysler factories… ‘Wildcat Summer’ was made possible by the groundwork previously laid by League-affiliated RUMs [Revolutionary Union Movements].”
Hence, for Counterpower, the LRBW was successful because the struggle did not immediately cease when the organization died out. But what was the long-term effect of “Wildcat Summer”? Why did these paroxysms of class struggle not culminate in revolution in the half century since?
Marxists dare to ask these questions, and by reading works like Lenin’s What is to be Done? we can answer why movements which bow to spontaneity fail. For Counterpower, the fact that history keeps happening is proof enough that the efforts of the LRBW were spot on; for revolutionary Marxists, the fact that workers keep losing is cause to evaluate the industrial rebellions of the 60s and 70s critically so we do not repeat the same mistakes. (153-154)
Counterpower shows a similar shallowness and lack of criticism in their “analysis” of the Industrial Workers of the World. For Counterpower, IWW was a success because they challenged craft unionism and some of their methods were later adopted by the AFL, CIO, and Trade Union Education League.
In the struggle for reforms, they may well be considered successful on that account. But Counterpower asserts that they “embodied a form of revolutionary class organization” and that their work was “preparing the masses for social revolution tomorrow.” (148-151) And yet that tomorrow has never come and the United States in the century since the IWW’s founding has not overthrown capitalism.
Why not? Yet again, Marxists must bring themselves to pore over the IWW’s legacy critically so we can do what they haven’t, and yet again Counterpower presents the arc of the IWW as a success for the utterly vapid reason that history kept happening after the sun set on the classic era of the IWW.
I am not the first person to point out the always sloppy and sometimes dishonest use of historical examples.
As Cliff Connolly rightly notes, the Communist Party’s work in Alabama bore no resemblance to autonomism. Counterpower focuses exclusively on the Party’s skilled engagement with local Black culture (pg. 166), but neglect to analyze how the party’s structure facilitated this work.
The Communist Party was not a federation of locals, as Counterpower would prefer, but was quite centralized. The Party’s Alabama organizations were not the result of local activists self-organizing, but sending two talented organizers from the North to Birmingham and Chattanooga to spread the party’s program and literature, to participate in class and democratic struggles, and to recruit new members.
Eventually, these founding leaders of District 17 had helped to recruit and develop strong local leaders who eclipsed them, but this excellent local work was a direct result of decisions in Moscow, Chicago, and New York. A centralized organization can streamline cadre training, have national and regional publications to distribute, and can shuffle personnel and resources from locations where party work is strong to places where it is weaker.
In misrepresenting the history of the CPUSA during its revolutionary United Frontist era and falsely imputing to them an affinity for autonomism, Counterpower is in effect stealing valor from real Marxists.
This should lead us to ask: if the tasks of a “party of autonomy” are best achieved by a centralized Marxist-Leninist party, why shouldn’t we just adopt Leninism and disregard autonomism?
Similarly, as Connolly points out, Counterpower dishonestly presents Rosa Luxemburg (a close ally of the Bolsheviks since 1905 and who boldly proclaimed, “the future everywhere belongs to ‘Bolshevism!’”) as an advocate of autonomism.
Counterpower claims that Luxemburg “identified a revolutionary party of autonomy as ‘the most conscious, purposeful part of the proletariat…’” But following the citation, we see that Luxemburg wasn’t talking about an archetype of a “party of autonomy”, but was speaking specifically of her organization, the Spartacus League.
Counterpower’s sneaky attempts to claim that long-dead revolutionaries were in fact autonomists does not resemble a scientific analysis of history so much as it recalls the attempts of the Mormons to posthumously baptize people into their faith.
Instead of viewing historical organizations in their proper context and learning lessons from them based on their results, Counterpower essentially instead sidesteps questions of success and failure altogether.
Consequently, the models and methods they dogmatically promote are not the ones that history shows to be the most effective, but only those that best conform to their pre-existing fetish for autonomism.
Warfare: Custerism Rides Again
The refusal to learn the lessons of history reaches its apex in the sections concerning armed struggle.
We should not mince words– if any organization is stupid enough to take Counterpower’s advice on warfare they will certainly lose the struggle and will probably lose their lives in the process.
Mao and his generals like Lin Biao and Zhu De concentrated and synthesized the best aspects of pre-existing military-political theory, forging a model that has proven its worth for insurgents of all types, whether Marxist, nationalist, or reactionary.
Among Mao’s most basic lessons was that, “The Party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the party.” Counterpower perverts this quote as follows: “the revolution must always command the armed forces: the armed forces must never be allowed to command the revolution.” (pg. 161, italics in the original).
While the change seems subtle the differences between the extremely valuable insights of Mao and the suicidal embrace of autonomist fads are severe. In the Maoist framework of Protracted People’s War, there is a unitary authority to which the armed forces must submit.
They carry out policies determined by the civilian party, they implement its strategy, spread its platform, and they are totally under the discipline of the party. In PPW, local cadre must show initiative and local commanders should be prepared to make fast decisions without unnecessary hand-holding by top generals or the party’s central committee.
Nevertheless, this framework involves a clear command structure in which the center is supreme. This organizational method works.
Seth Jones, in examining a dataset of nearly every insurgency since the Second World War has found that “ groups with high levels of centralization are more likely to achieve victory (46%) than ones with moderate (34%) or low (15%) levels of centralization.
In fact, among insurgencies that have terminated since World War II and in which groups have had a high degree of centralization, four out of five conflicts have ended in insurgent victory or a draw.” (Jones, Seth G. Waging Insurgent Warfare: Lessons from the Vietcong to the Islamic State, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2019, pg. 93).
In contrast to parties, who, through democratic centralism, can arrive at a single, easy to follow line, revolutions are always messy.
They are made up of an array of factions and organizations and they encompass a wide range of ideas and perspectives. Inevitably, revolutionaries include reactionaries and workers swayed by reactionary thinking.
The French Revolution included its Thermidorians and its hypocritical defenders of slavery in Haiti– and these traitors to the best impulses of the Revolution could say, not entirely dishonestly, that they committed their dirty deeds in the name of that same revolution. In Thermidor, the revolution commanded the violence of the White Terror.
Counterpower boldly claims, “defense networks should be organized on a federative basis.” Why? They do not include a single citation in this paragraph, nor do they list a single example of a federative armed organization successfully overthrowing a state or a ruling class.
Counterpower proffers a severely convoluted command structure that gives an absurd amount of leeway to local units and local commanders. Recall the classic sitcom trope of a child asking their mother if they could do something, and subsequently asking their father the same question when their mother tells them no. Now imagine that the child in the sitcom is a regiment of troops psychologically damaged by war who want to carry out a policy of collective punishment against an ethnic group that disproportionately opposes the revolution.
The central council says no, but the local council (or the local military commanders elected by these damaged troops) may say yes. Given their favorable stance on the popular frontism of the FMLN of El Salvador, it is also probable that such a unit could not only seek a justification from different levels of a territorial council, but can openly seek another political party to justify itself.
It takes no imagination to see how such a system leads first to a type of military-political entrepreneurship and then to outright warlordism. This is why the party, not the ambiguous “revolution” must command the gun, and must do so absolutely.
This scenario of local leaders braying for counterproductive violence while central leaders, at a greater remove from the chaos and trauma of war, try to keep a lid on it is not fiction.
In India, the two Naxalite organizations, the Maoist Communist Centre of India (MCC) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) People’s War engaged in tit-for-tat killings of one another’s cadres and soldiers. This situation caused fear among the local population worried about getting caught in the crossfire, confused supporters of the revolutionary struggle, and severely distracted from the goal of making revolution in India.
Leaders of both groups realized the necessity of not only making peace, but merging their competing organizations into a single party. Sadly, local leaders initially sabotaged the effort. As one MCC local leader, Bharat, told the central leaders: “You are unable to appreciate the situation here; I am staying here, our comrades are being attacked [by People’s War] regularly.” (Bhattacharyya, Amit. Storming the Gates of Heaven: The Maoist Movement in India: A Critical Study, 1972 -2014. Setu Prakashani, 2016, pg. 195).
In this case, as in many others, local control and autonomy was a dangerous and bloody obstacle that had to be overcome to improve movement effectiveness. Counterpower’s dogma– which, once more, does not include a single, solitary example of their federative warfare strategy succeeding– elevates this problem to a virtue!
The historical data clearly indicates that a clear, top-down command structure and a unified and coherent civilian party to direct the armed forces are vital to victory; those who fail to adopt this framework will fail to overthrow the ruling class through armed struggle.
Yet again, Counterpower plays fast and loose with historical examples (or ignores the need for historical analysis altogether) to cobble together a theory of warfare which cannot possibly achieve the aims of the communist movement.
Sloppy Theory and Prefigurative Politics
Counterpower’s theories of revolution and armed struggle evince a lack of concern with the historical record and replace winning strategies with much more questionable ones. How is it that committed revolutionaries can get it so wrong? The answer is that they firmly reject the philosophical lodestar of Marxism– historical and dialectical materialism.
Engels contributes the following on materialism: “The materialist conception of history starts from the proposition that the production of the means to support human life and, next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all social structure; that in every society that has appeared in history, the manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided into classes or orders is dependent upon what is produced, how it is produced, and how the products are exchanged. From this point of view, the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men’s brains, not in men’s better insights into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production and exchange.”( Engels, “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific”)
Many Marxists can abuse the Marxist understanding of historical materialism to falsely assert that each and every minute change in the superstructure must directly and exactly correspond to some change in the base.
At their best, Marxists instead understand that the forces and relations of production form the foundation of human society and provide the conditions through which change occurs, even if they do not rigidly and precisely determine every aspect and even if the superstructure can react back on the base.
Counterpower rightly reject this crude understanding of Marxism, as well as the repugnant social chauvinism that too frequently comes attached to it. (pgs. 24-25)
But Counterpower throws the baby out with the bathwater. They implicate nearly any system that “exaggerates the influence of its favored sphere of social activity as a motor force in historical causality” as reductionist, and instead seem to promote a system where all “spheres”– kinship, polity, economy, and more– are roughly co-equal and that any sphere can be the initiator of revolutionary change.
To prove the worth of this methodology they use a curious example of the class struggle forcing the US ruling class to implement the New Deal. This policy had major implications for Black and women workers and deeply impacted the sphere of kinship. What’s interesting about this example is that it seems to confirm historical materialism– a major change is initiated in the relations of production, and affects kinship and other spheres.
This is their only example of their theory of historical change. To actually prove the superiority of “complimentary holism” over Marxism, they would at a minimum need to show a change initiated in a different sphere trickling down to the class struggle or forces of production (and prove that the forces and relations of production were not the base on which such a change was made), but this they have not done.
This rejection of Marxism doesn’t just result in bad understandings of history– it has profound and erroneous implications for how we should engage in revolutionary struggle.
The Marxist theory of revolution asserts that a revolution is a historical event in which “one class overthrows another”, as Mao famously put it. Consequently, the agent of revolution is a class and the target to be defeated is also a class (including their state and the mode of production in which they dominate.)
For Marxists, it is necessary that we have an adequate understanding who the revolutionary class is, who might be potential friends of the class through a united front, and who is the enemy.
Counterpower strangely considers self-employed people (provided they aren’t too wealthy and are squeezed by the capitalist market) into the category of the “proletariat.” (pg. 10). They fail to understand that the proletariat isn’t just a group of people who are downtrodden and whose lives may be improved by socialism.
The proletariat is a category of people with a specific relationship to capital, and it is that unique social position that gives them such special potential in organizing a movement to bring about communism.
Similarly, Counterpower does not consider the enemy to be the capitalist class per se; they again jettison Marxist class analysis in favor of a definition drawn from C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite.
For Counterpower, the ruling class is not the capitalist class but rather “a plutocratic oligarchy of warlords, the corporate rich, and the political directorate of the state.” (pg. 57, emphasis added) Marxist do not consider only the capitalists who can be considered “the corporate rich” to be the ruling class. The current rise of the far right has been supported both by the small business owners that Counterpower smuggles into the category of the proletariat, as well as an array of capitalists who cannot be fully classified as the “corporate rich” who are part of a “plutocratic oligarchy.”
While Counterpower continually extols the virtues of the united front, their tendency to group the petit bourgeoisie into the proletariat and to exclude sole proprietors (ie, those capitalists who aren’t “corporate”) from the ranks of the ruling class foretells a real danger of sinking into a popular frontism that concedes too much to non-proletarian classes and does not sufficiently target the entirety of the capitalist class.
Counterpower’s anti-materialism also manifests itself in unrealistic views of the state. For Marxists, ideology is downstream of forces and relations of production and the state is inevitably a class state.
Counterpower, as mentioned above, does not see the state as representing the whole of a ruling class, but only a sliver of it– the power elite. Furthermore, they aver that “all state apparatuses build bureaucracies in accordance with a particular state ideology.” This is nonsense.
Anarchists in Spain had an ideology that firmly stood against any state or bureaucracy– and yet they created a state, complete with an army, a parliament, some degree of economic planning, and forced labor prison camps.
Similarly, top Bolshevik leaders like Lenin had ideological commitments to a proletarian state without much of a bureaucracy. But, surrounded by enemies and forced to contend with raising a country with a low level of productive forces to socialism, a bureaucracy developed nevertheless.
As materialists, we can examine the real social forces that led to the degeneration of revolutions and that influenced the sorts of workers’ states that were formed.
Counterpower instead believes that states emerge fully formed from the heads of their founders. Such organizations will be utterly unprepared to head off bureaucratization if they ever find themselves at the fore of a real revolution.
Imagine you are trying to plant an orchard. Do you do so prefiguratively? Do you plant something that looks like a tiny, marble-sized apple tree, in hopes that it in time becomes a large fruit-bearing tree?
The planter of a successful orchard instead will plant a seed that bears little resemblance to a mature tree. The seed contains the embryo that becomes the tree, but an embryo is not just a microcosm or smaller version of the whole. It is something qualitatively different that nevertheless develops in stages to become something with another form.
So too with class struggle. Organs of workers power may contain in an embryonic form aspects of a new world, but it isn’t necessary or desirable for them to totally prefigure it.
The higher stages of communism involve a stateless society where the repressive apparatuses have ceased to exist– it is not necessary or desirable to have a fighting organization.
But prior to the highest stage of communism, communist organizations must be moving in the direction towards repressing the capitalist class, a task that fundamentally shapes the organization. While the future we want is much freer than the present, an organization powerful enough to challenge the ruling class and win must be rigorously disciplined.
In pre-revolutionary times, Marxists are more concerned with building effective organizations than prefigurative ones.
Counterpower reverses this, advocating for everyday “microrevolutions”, and a “new form of politics that organizes itself to the rhythms of everyday life.” (pg. 84) They “imagine a psychedelic or ‘mind-manifesting’ cultural revolution” involving “technologies of the non-self– such as collective meditation, somatics, bioenergetics, yoga, dance, athletics, aimless wandering, artistic creation, and psychedelic experiences.” (pg. 88)
Many of these actions can be personally beneficial (just as brushing one’s teeth can be personally beneficial) or a fun and meaningful way to connect small groups of friends with similar interests, but it’s questionable how much political potential most of these activities have.
Nevertheless, Counterpower is so dogmatically convinced in their political efficacy that they claim “an integral aspect of constructing communist alternatives must be the playful subversion of everyday life.” (pg. 88, emphasis added).
Their one example is a workers sports league in Austria in the 1920s. But they fail to connect this episode to the larger history of the Austrian socialist movement, fail to state whether that movement succeeded or failed. (For the record, it failed).
Because Counterpower believes that revolution is every bit as likely to begin in the sphere of personal living arrangements and kinship as in the realm of the class struggle, they devote quite a bit of attention to “communal habitations”, not built after or during a revolution once power has been seized, but created in the here and now. Indeed, they write, “the formation of communal habitations is as crucial to the communist social revolution as building working-class counterpower in the essential industries.” (pg. 190)
They consider punk houses and squats to be a great way to grow the communist movement. Sure, these living arrangements haven’t led to a revolution but some of them have been “big enough to include movie theaters [and] practice rooms for bands”! (pg. 99)
Counterpower’s affinity for communal living under capitalism occasionally goes from wacky to outright obscene. They call for “micro-communes” based on a “reimagining” of social forms like the Israeli kibbutz. (pg.99) But the kibbutz was not mostly about collective living– it was an organizational form masterminded by the Zionist movement for the express purpose of creating garrisons to displace Palestinians.
To playfully assert that the kibuttzim should be “reimagined” rather than destroyed is utterly sick. Indeed, they offer not a line of criticism of the kibbutz or its role in the oppression of Palestine. If your ideology leads to an embrace of “autonomous” Zionism or “autonomous” ethnic cleansing, you have surely made a wrong turn somewhere.
IT’S A SMALL WORLD AFTER ALL
There is one more consequence of abandoning materialism that merits a mention in this review– Counterpower does not understand that full freedom can ultimately only be forged on a solid material basis of abundance. Indeed, they go so far as to argue that we must dramatically scale back energy production.
Approvingly citing Murray Bookchin as an influence, they dream of a world in which energy production is insufficient to fuel an “imperialist megacity.” (107) In effect, they favor starving such “megacities” of energy in order to depopulate them and the suburbs so that we can live on tiny, back-to-the-land communes that are in tune with nature.
This anarcho-Pol Potism would be a bad idea at any time in the history of capitalism, but it is especially dangerous in the twenty-first century. We have entered a hellish era of extreme weather, declining water tables and drying rivers, and topsoil disappearing. (As I argued in my previous review on Climate Leviathan, democratic central planning of the economy offers our best hope at finding solutions: Only The Global Working Class Can Slay The Climate Leviathan – The Virginia Worker.)
We are also seeing the first signs of a massive number of climate refugees, fleeing increasingly barren and uninhabitable regions. A world of small communities with just enough to satisfy their own desires is a world that cannot accommodate tens or hundreds of millions of desperate, hungry people arriving–sometimes quite suddenly– at the doorsteps of the more inhabitable regions.
A community with just enough electric power will have to ask if it will continue to power the hospital downtown, or if it will provide electricity to the migrants’ newly established shanty-town down the street. Planning for material abundance and cleaner, greener megacities ensures that no community will find itself with the Sophie’s choice of providing a welcoming home for migrants or maintaining livable conditions for their own kith and kin.
And a centralized, democratically planned economy will make it faster and easier to shift resources to where they are most urgently needed. Furthermore, cities, not tiny communities, have historically been ground zero for the sort of internationalism and cosmopolitanism that Marxists embrace.
Proletarian Revolution or Socialism in One Percent of One Country?
Without question, the Zapatistas are the most advanced example of a group that has drawn on (and inspired) autonomist ideas.
Surely a book-length defense of autonomism would include a thorough accounting of the movement’s successes and failures, but, astonishingly, Counterpower does not see fit to examine the Zapatista movement in detail.
We see slogans about creating “a world where many worlds fit” multiple times as well as the call to “lead by obeying.” It is downright sad to see a movement that should demand a rigorous analysis reduced to a few pithy aphorisms. It is well beyond the scope of this article to give an exhaustive history or critique of the Zapatistas, but I will provide a few points to support my view that the Zapatista uprising cannot be considered a viable alternative to Leninism, in spite of its many laudable aspects.
Have you heard of the vaccine the Zapatistas developed to combat COVID? Nobody has, because it doesn’t exist. As mentioned earlier, Marxists contend that freedom necessarily has a material dimension and must be built on a solid material foundation. To their credit, the Zapatistas have developed a system of deliberation and decision-making that has many democratic aspects, and from which all revolutionaries can glean plenty of lessons.
But it is Cuba, whose democracy is far more narrow, that has supplied its people (and millions elsewhere) with multiple effective COVID vaccines. The Cuban state and the Cuban people made a decision to invest in their pharmaceutical industry, and–crucially– they had the means to implement that decision.
Even if the residents of Zapatista communities deliberated and voted on making their own vaccines, they wouldn’t be able to produce them because the productive forces in their primarily rural territory are simply too low. This demonstrates why Marxists believe that proletarian democracy and, ultimately, communism, must be premised on material abundance– because when communism is achieved in conditions with a low level of development it is not deliberative processes but poverty and necessity which make the de facto decisions that greatly influence the future.
Many socialist revolutions have occurred in areas with low levels of development, but those which have endured have made it their goal to organize proletarians and to use the productive forces of the cities to elevate the productive forces of the country as a whole.
In their failure to expand to the cities and form a unified, Mexico-wide organization, the Zapatistas have pursued a path of self-limitation that all but guarantees they will never substantially improve the productive forces of their territory.
One state over from Chiapas lies Oaxaca, site of the massive 2006 protests which turned the capital, Oaxaca City, upside down. Counterpower identifies the uprising as an example of a “system of counterpower”, which ultimately failed because a wave of violent repression prevented it from “territorial generalization.” (pg. 185)
It is certainly true that the movement failed to sufficiently grow its territory, but Counterpower fails to see why that might be, besides repression (which every revolutionary movement has faced and will face).
My contention is that Counterpower’s conception on how revolutions happen is hopelessly out of step with reality. Having an uprising which creates a fully and immediately communist society in a small sliver of territory that gradually expands simply isn’t how the geography of revolution has ever worked.
Take the example of China– the Chinese Communist Party established base areas, spread its program far and wide, recruited members, formed mass organizations, and more. However, the strategy was not mostly premised on the steady accumulation of base areas or increasing them in size.
In fact, the CCP made expert use of the classic Fabian strategy of trading space for time. CCP was not able to guarantee the “territorial generalization” of the Jiangxi Soviet but they did not need to. They left, and when they returned they were millions.
The experience of China should cause us to question if the struggles in Chiapas and Oaxaca could have gone differently. The EZLN stated in the “Second Declaration of the Lancondon Jungle” their desire for a democratic national convention in Mexico.
Nothing about such a call should be objectionable to a revolutionary Marxist. However, the EZLN made some extremely unwise and extremely autonomist decisions. While a party like the Bolsheviks called for both all power to the soviets and openly presented their party program they believed the soviets should carry out, the EZLN states that, “political maturity of the EZLN, its coming of age as a representative part of the Nation’s sensibilities, depends on the fact that it doesn’t want to impose its idea on the country. The EZLN hereby declares what is already evident: Mexico has come of age, and has the right to decide, freely and democratically, the direction it will take.”
Essentially, they rightly call for the progressive and democratic form of a constituent assembly, but, unlike the Bolsheviks, they pat themselves on the back for failing to clearly present what they feel the content of that form should be. Furthermore, Subcomandante Marcos highlighted a strategy that would not involve a coherent party united around a single platform, but rather a multiplicity of autonomous “pockets of resistance.” If that wasn’t clear enough, he famously declared, “I shit on all the revolutionary vanguards of this planet.”
What if, instead of leaving the 99% of Mexico that isn’t under Zapatista administration to figure out how to resist on their own and to make their own competing platforms, the Zapatistas capitalized off of their success by turning Chiapas into a base area for a revolutionary party?
Chiapas is home to many national and international conferences and hosts handfuls of activists from the world over, but what if activists could get trained there and return home as official members of a Zapatista party, which could form official Zapatista mass organizations in the urban areas where 80% of Mexicans reside?
What if that party was guided by democratic centralism and had the level of organization to effectively direct these activists? What if the APPO had been part of such a coherent nationwide movement? Then, instead of fizzling out after the repression, they could have engaged in the sort of “orderly retreat, with the least loss to their ‘army’, with its core best preserved, with the least significant splits (in point of depth and incurability), with the least demoralisation, and in the best condition to resume work on the broadest scale and in the most correct and energetic manner” that allowed the Bolsheviks to triumph in 1917 after the movement had faltered in 1905.
While the Zapatistas decided not to form an all-Mexico organization, the capitalist reformer Andrés Manuel López Obrador did. At the same time that the APPO was expelling the police from Oaxaca City, AMLO was catalyzing a social movement around himself in the aftermath of a presidential election that was stolen from him.
The Zapatista theory of change asserts that pockets of resistance will form and a “leaderful” movement will result when revolutionaries do not “impose” themselves by providing centralized leadership. But Mexico’s example shows something else entirely– when revolutionaries neglect to truly lead in the way that Leninists advocate, the reformists are more than happy to fill that vacuum.
When we excuse movements like the Zapatistas for engaging in localism and hoping that urban Mexicans “figure it out on their own”, we are demanding too little of the movement; but when we expect social explosions like the Oaxaca uprising to grow forever territorially, we are expecting too much, freighting them with unrealistic expectations.
The original Italian autonomists saw the real problem of the “official” Communist Party and its “official” workers’ organizations as leading to the preservation and stabilization of capitalism. Consequently, they articulated a need for the working class to generate organizational forms autonomous from those of the capitalist class and from the “Communists” who were cozying up to the capitalists.
But as autonomism has grown and degenerated, it has dogmatically elevated autonomy into a panacea that can be applied to any situation. Megacities are too big– we should make smaller communities which are more autonomous. Parties are too coherent– we should have federated organizations where autonomous locals call most of the shots. The organized party must not command the gun in armed struggle– the nebulous and polycentric “revolution” must do so.
The result of all of this dross is not to generate strategies that make the working class more autonomous from the capitalist class, but rather to keep the various sections of the working class “autonomous” from one another. Working class unity– principled unity around a comprehensive program speaking to all major issues and finding solutions to all forms of oppression– is among the most important priorities for Marxists.
In Leninism, we have forged a science of revolution that is second to none in uniting workers to overthrow ruling classes and their states, but there are still many unresolved questions on how we Leninists can truly affect the transition to a classless, stateless society that has eluded us so far.
We need to be willing to question “sacred” truths, experiment, and subject the entirety of proletarian history to a ruthless critique in order to find the innovations that will allow us to succeed where the socialism of the 20th century failed or was defeated. Sadly, the unserious suggestions found in Organizing for Autonomy will be of little use to this project.
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