photo by SG

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Doing Revolution

Seeing Erik's post at Rethinking Anarchism and Nate's at What in the Hell about Lenin and reading some of the pieces he linked to got me thinking about the man a bit and about his situation. I think I'm more critical of Lenin than some of the folks whose writings Nate links, but I also have an impulse towards criticism of him due to my own ideological baggage.

These articles do really interesting things to discuss the work that Lenin did and the way he thought. That's not what I have, 'cause I can't write good critique, sadly. I've just been thinking about stuff that Lenin's life suggests to me in terms of the possibility and reality of revolution.

Most of us have very little power individually. Radicals in concert tend to have more power based simply on the combination of their individual abilities. Successful organizations have some kind of "force multiplier" that comes from the combination of their individual abilities with action that works. I'm better at charts than writing, so it looks like this to me:

Units of Power (ability/potencia) in society
Individual: 1
Collection of Individuals: 1xN (where N is number of participants)
Organization: 1xNxQ (where N is number of participants and Q is an action that fits the situation)

I'm not really sure what Q is, but I'm certain it exists. I'm using Q because maybe it corresponds to "quality," but I haven't worked that out. (Some social science student I am!) But Q is there, right? Imagine the times when you've participated in an action of some sort that was totally ill-adapted to the situation, and the outcome and amount of power that you exerted. Now imagine a situation where you've done an action that "fit" the situation. Certain actions just work better, and the ability [power/potencia] that the organization has when it fits the situation is much more.

So Q is what gets me back to Lenin. Clearly the man and his contemporaries had a particular kind of organizational model, strategy, and tactics that worked well. Their Q value was really high and that amplified their ability to exert their power. Their Q and their N increased to the point where they were able to "win" if we may simplify, by exerting an QN that was higher than the ruling class's NQ.

[Rather than turning this post into an intelligent political analysis, this is where I will suddenly change directions!]

What's interesting to me, and it's part of the reason why I probably have more sympathy for the historical Lenin (and Mao for that matter) than I should, is that Q frightens me. Most of us have never participated in organizations that had a sustained high Q level. I've done work in groups where we've had moments of great Q where all of a sudden it was as if we "understood" what was happening and were able to intervene in really effective ways. But these have never been really long. Before long we lose our way and end up doing things that are really ineffective. I've been in other groups that have had reasonably high N values representing lots of participation, but rather low Q. Sometimes this has happened in the same organization at different times (for me both my experiences in SDS and the IWW reflect this).

(Somewhere in this discussion it's important to note that we can't fetishize Q over QN. My recent research into the Partido Comunista Mexicano has highlighted for me that the "right line" means absolutely nothing if you can't relate that through numbers and application with the world.)

So how does it feel to be in an organization, much less in the leadership of an organization with a high QN? I imagine it's rather terrifying. It's quite something different to talk about a social revolution when you have no serious way of making it happen than to actually be in a situation where you could concievably carry it out. The pressure to continue to keep your effectiveness high amidst repression and competing groups is difficult enough when you're relatively small, but what about when everyone in the world is watching you?

Further, my concern with Lenin is that he and his comrades were simply the first to ever do this. Modern revolutionaries should think about the same thing. Since we're not interested in re-doing the Soviet Union this time around, we're basically standing on very little well-trod ground. Catalonia, Korea, Ukraine, there's a few examples, but they were all completely crushed. It's almost a tautology, but part of the reason why a revolution is so hard to think about is because there hasn't been the kind of revolution we seek and if there had been that revolution, we wouldn't be thinking about a revolution because it would have happened. How do we know that we're not going to zig when we should zag and produce our own NEP? Or our own Weather Underground? Or whatever? Part of the difficulty in doing revolutionary work and thinking of a revolution is that we have so many examples of failure and none of true success. (I think this may be part of why so many revolutionaries become reformists at some point in their lives.)

I guess what I'm trying to get at here is that reading all this stuff about Lenin, particularly folks who seek to interrogate his political method to draw something from it, makes me doubt more than it makes me feel confident. Lenin failed at bringing communism to life, and if we accept that he teaches a great deal about how to do that project today, or perhaps the opposite, that his failure teaches us more than his thoughts do, I feel like we also have to grapple with the strong personal and emotional problems that these political lessons provide us. Do we have the strength, as individuals as well as together, to make a revolution? This question bugs me because there's no political way out, it's simply a question that gets at issues of personality and, above all, self-confidence. It's easy to be confident of the need for revolution when it is still on the horizon, but could I, or any other would-be Lenin, actually stand up to the task of creating communism? I fear that I couldn't deal with the pressure, the history of so many failed revolutions and dead revolutionaries that call out for a successful change, the need to reimagine the world completely. How did he? How can we?