One of the theoretical advances of Marxism over previous socialisms was that it identified the need for the working class to seize state power; to overthrow the bourgeois state. But how is this to be done?
Too often, communists assume that the answer is just to synthesize a “formula” from some revolution or another (most commonly the Russian Revolution, followed by the Chinese Revolution) and then reapply this formula at all times and places. Any failures are then traced to the fact that we weren’t faithful enough to the “true” way of communism. This tendency is particularly common among Trotskyists, with Hoxhaists (such as the American Party of Labor) being the second worst. But, to paraphrase Lenin, this is not thinking, this is learning words.
Returning to the question at hand, what is the nature of this bourgeois “state” that we seek to challenge? While the Marxist analysis is more nuanced, for our purposes here, Max Weber’s famous definition will suffice; an entity that possesses a monopoly on the “legitimate” use of force in a given territory. To challenge the state, then, is somehow to break this singular hold; to tear to shreds the ruling class’ sole claim to the use of force by establishing a dual power, another social nexus which can set itself up as an alternative and thereby delegitimize the bourgeois state’s claim to exclusive power.
As Perry Anderson, professor of History and Sociology at UCLA (The University of California at Los Angeles) argues, there are three main ways to break the ruling class’s hold on the exclusive claim to force. The first is that which was employed in the Russian Revolution; to take out the bourgeois state with a quick, direct strike when that state is severely weakened by war.
One should immediately see the problem that most “orthodox” Leninist parties encounter; these are not the concrete conditions in most countries, and thus trying to emulate the Russian Revolution tit-for-tat is a hopeless strategy at best, and at worst a kind of veil for petty-bourgeois idealism and crypto-liberalism, dismissing any attempts at organizing a revolutionary movement based on an analysis of the concrete conditions (such as the heroic people’s movements in India, Nepal, and the Philippines) as “not what the bolsheviks did.” However, there are countries where this strategy could work (Pakistan comes to mind).
The next option is to erect a “counter-state” within the borders of the existing state, and whittle away at the latter’s legitimacy by building alternative/illicit social institutions that gradually decrease the people’s dependency on the bourgeois state, while also both protecting these alternative arrangements and challenging the bourgeois state’s monopoly on force through establishing its own military force. This is the theory at the core of the “people’s war” strategy popular among Maoists in developing nations, and it serves them very well there. However, while some U.S. Maoists still suggest it is possible to wage a protracted people’s war in the South, I think this is unlikely. The strategy is simply not a good one to apply to advanced, urban, postindustrial capitalist nations, as the experiences of the Red Army Faction, the Baader-Meinhof group, and the Weather Underground should have taught us.
There two main reasons for this. First, the military apparatus in this countries is often going to just be too powerful and pervasive to mount a direct challenge. Second, when the country is as physically developed and urbanized, an attempt at guerrilla warfare will probably backfire, degenerating into individual terrorism and just alienating the people.
What then should we do in such nations? The bolshevik strategy requires specific conjunctural features that our situation lacks, while the people’s war strategy requires structural conditions that we don’t meet. It is here that a study of bourgeois revolutions, particularly the French revolution is useful, situating our perspective in the work of Antonio Gramsci. In such societies, a naked challenge to power will not only be ineffective because of the state’s military power, but because such states rule primarily through ideological hegemony. Just like the bourgeois revolutionaries of the French revolution went to the salons of the aristocracy to taunt them with ideas of revolution, so we must seek to build a “counterhegemonic bloc” within the existing society. The French revolutionaries did not retreat to the countryside to build an alternative social space next to the existing one, but they built new social “bubbles” within the old social space, and changed practices within it.
You might notice that there are many parallels to the people’s war strategy here, and its true; there are many important parallels, which is why if I had to pin myself in a tendency I’d call myself a Maoist. However, there are a few key differences. The first is that while the people’s war strategy does set up a dual power “within” the existing state, this is only insofar as it is in the same geographic area that the state lays claim to. Part of the whole point is that it is building a counter state alongside the existing state, sharing only its physical border. The counterhegemonic bloc, on the other hand, develops the seeds of the new society within the social apparatus of the existing society, using counterhegemonic practices and ideas which subvert the ruling class from within through resistance to the status quo. It is civil disobedience with the “civil” aspect becoming optional.
In a future post, I hope to explore the lessons of the French revolution for socialist revolution and the ideas of Gramsci more in a future post. I will also examine the failure of the German revolution in the early 20th century and compare and contrast it to the Russian revolution in an effort to identify structural and conjunctural differences between them in order to help frame the creation of a synthesis of Mao’s ideas and Gramsci’s concept of counterhegemony which can guide us in 21st century revolution in the developed world.