What is to be done? The mere utterance conjures associations with certain Marxist traditions, causing some to sit up and take note, and others to glaze over. It remains however, the orienting question for anyone involved in political action, in whatever capacity. What should I be doing? What should we be doing? These rather trite questions rapidly disperse down a thousand avenues. For some the question is already answered with an espousal of the form of activity in which they are currently involved, be it lone that gives primacy to union struggles, or attempting to build the communist party, or radicalizing the bourgeois parties. For others the old models of change feel inadequate, though new ones have as yet failed to materialise.
To exist on the left is to be frustrated, triumphant, and underwhelmed at once. We take our cues from the great revolutionary fractures in history, and find ourselves in a moment where those revolutionary fervours are so desperately needed yet so conspicuously absent. The challenges are many and daunting. Climate change is already devastating huge swathes of the globe, whilst militarised state power is more formidable than ever. We all want action but it is unclear what those actions should be. Whether we should be focussing on union organising, or building the party, or any specific form of activity, is not immediately obvious, because these are not self-evident truths. Instead there should be a space to understand each of these forms of activity in both their historical and current contexts.
There is however, no functionally appropriate forum for working through these questions. The left - however one wants to define it - is scattered and diffuse, meaning social media is the only widely used forum for collective discussion. Questions of revolutionary strategy become the day’s dominant conversation from time to time, inevitably monopolised by those with large followings. This mode of discussion can never really break new ground. No matter how many people declare that the left should be doing this, or the left should be doing the opposite of this, there is no collective left that acts. If the consensus on any given day (and by consensus all we can ever mean is our own social media and our own personal network) is that the left should be pushing for a Green New Deal, what does that mean to me as an individual? How am I to enact this “pushing”? As always, these are questions of power: the ability to act, and make others act in a manner you desire.
Let’s work through this. The Green New Deal ultimately requires state power to be enacted. So what do I as an individual do? Join a GND lobbying organisation? Join one of the bourgeois parties and push motions through my local branch advocating a GND? Many of us have engaged in this form of activity at some point, framing ourselves as foot soldiers for a cause. However, how long do I keep turning up to meetings, submitting motions, knocking on doors, leafleting the public, showing up to rallies, without feeling an increase in my own sense of agency, or seeing the wider goal any closer to achievement? All this time I have been “pushing” for a GND, and yet the material effects of my pushing seem negligible. In the meantime, because crises temporally overlap, others are now demanding the left push for another hot-button issue. My options are functionally the same, and the cycle begins again. And where can I record my experiences within organisations and on campaigns? I can tweet about it, or I might start a blog, or publish an article. There may be a flare up of engagement with my work, before it disappears into the depths of the internet, and something new is pursued. Has a contribution been made to collective memory and knowledge?
How long any individual is willing to sacrifice their own free time towards a cause or organisation will depend in large part on the friendships and community developed through them, and how much the struggle becomes a part of their very identity. Almost all of us have adopted a political identity that provides an overarching revolutionary model, but one that feels completely disconnected from the here and now. Orthodox Marxist, Market socialist, Leninist, Marxist-Leninist, Marxist-Leninist-Maoist, Anarchist, Anarcho-synidcalist, Libertarian socialist, Left communist, Communiser. Hundreds of identities and inherited antagonisms, untethered from the historical conditions and tangible stakes that brought them into existence. Whilst the political stakes might be absent, the stakes in terms of friendship and solidarity are often considerable. That does not mean these identities must be shed, but that they must be recast for a new conjuncture. Old maps cannot readily overlay new terrain.
Where we find ourselves in terms of political identity is often a matter of contingency. Who we interact with and who we look up to; the marks left through experience and the interpersonal relations - positive and negative - that we develop. There is also an ongoing law of sunk costs. The organisations to which we have given our time and effort, and the theorists we have dedicated ourselves to understanding, these become the bulwarks of our identity, and ones that are difficult to forsake. None of this experience should be thrown aside or dismissed. Our knowledge and experiences are not only critical to how we understand the world, but also important for building bonds of solidarity. If the organisation you gave years to collapsed, or covered up abuse, or simply drifted on obscurely, this is information worthy of record and analysis. How many times have the same failed actions been tried; the same failed organisational models been applied; the same errors been committed time and time again? Sure, sometimes it is a case of identifying with these models and being unable to move away from them, but often it is also simply a lack of knowledge of these failures. How then do we reconcile these contingent identities with a more systematic approach to theorising change?
All political action inevitably depends upon models of change. These models can be tactically focussed (for example, what response would be expected from a particular letting agent to a rent strike); of organisational form (for example,what kind of organisational structure enables the most substantive participation from rank and file members); they might also be models of broad social changes (for example, how increased home working would be expected to change conditions for labour organising). It is already clear how in complex social systems the space these models cover will always overlap. This is particularly true when the focus is an overarching strategy. At differing levels of granularity, organisational and tactical concerns become of greater import, as might broader social processes. In some cases the models underlying a particular action or structure are explicitly set out, but very often these models are left implicit. In the latter case it often serves to centralise decision making to those who have knowledge of the assumptions implicit in an approach. Explicitly setting out the models underlying a particular structure or action doesn’t immediately resolve every problem (e.g. models of democratic centralism are generally stated quite explicitly, but cannot account for informal power and influence). Despite this, we should aspire to explicitly setting out the assumptions underlying our various actions, as a baseline for dialogue.
Building models - some null hypotheses
What is required is a point of reference that is explicitly stated. The process of modelling gives us just this. A model is a representation of reality. Every model is a reduction (abstraction if we want to get technical). The extent of this reduction is dependent upon the system being modelled, but the crucial point is that the boundaries of a specific model are not open to interpretation, they are explicit. Whether the model itself is a useful and accurate representation of the system being modelled is an important and relevant question, but that is the point! We can debate the relevance of a model because the model itself is explicitly stated. Human society is incredibly complex and therefore any model is going to be a considerable simplification. There will be a number of assumptions in models of human society. So when we look at models of revolutionary change, they are predicated on a number of necessary conditions existing for that change to be possible. For example, many theories of global Communist revolution necessitate a global workers’ movement. With the decline of the workers’ movement this precondition no longer exists. This draws out a whole host of further questions. Can the workers’ movement be rebuilt under current - drastically different - conditions? Considering its failure and decline should we even use its peak as our model for what is to come? These are not simple questions to answer, but they are of vital importance: Are our models of change still relevant?
The logic of modelling history can be put like so. We need to understand the present to locate the structural factors in the past that opened up this present as one of - potentially several - possible futures. Once we have grasped this structure we can attempt to understand the contextualised role of contingency (ie human agency) in bringing about this present. History is never just about conjunctural limits, and it is never just about the choices of individuals. The former is always the terrain on which the latter can - and do - act, in a relationship of causal asymmetry. As Marx famously put it in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”
Why does any of this matter? To give one example, in the aftermath of the 2019 British general election a fragmented left has sought the individuals responsible for defeat. Every day you can log into Twitter and find someone highlighting the betrayal of media figures, Labour party MPs or left voices who wilted at various points. How do you distinguish between betrayal and the actions of someone who was never on your side anyway? And is there another argument, where constraints are such that there is no alternative action? If we fail to understand these moments we end up repeating past failures - expecting discipline from those who were never there to be disciplined, or in the absence of any disciplining mechanism - and constructing a future built on the logic of “do the same, but with better people”. To return to our earlier point about the absence of a revolutionary horizon, it is not new Lenins that we need, but new movements, and new ways to interact within them.
What might this look like in practice? Below we outline some very brief sketches of example null hypotheses, and why they provide generative frameworks for collective engagement. The null hypothesis is our baseline model, our expectation in the absence of change. These are deliberately simplistic, and their application to specific contexts would require engagement with those contexts, but they provide a flavour of the sort of approaches we are advocating.
Socialism - the political project
In Capitalism and Social Democracy, the analytical Marxist Adam Przeworski argued that the social democratic parties of the 20th century had never achieved a >50% majority, in part because they represented the interests of less than 50% of the population. This left two options: maintain a class-pure party (i.e. representing the industrial workforce) consigned to electoral failure, or court voters beyond the working class, thereby diluting the programme to appeal to a wider base. The third option - electoral abstention - was never a viable option for a workers’ party because the ballot box is seen as an opportunity to advance workers’ interests.
This then forms the logic of a null hypothesis, that socialism cannot be achieved politically because of structural limits. To argue for a socialist political project one must attempt to show why the constraints of the 20th century no longer exist, and how the numbers add up such that a workers’ party can achieve a majority without watering down its programme to appeal to the wider electorate. What this type of analysis would look like will of course be dependent on the historical specificities of where it is being applied. This is not to argue that socialism can never be achieved via the ballot box, but any argument for it must attempt to reject this null hypothesis, rather than simply ignoring these constraints as is usually the case.
The notion of dual power involves the existence of an alternative power to the bourgeois state. This alternative power is predicated on decentralisation and democratic control. The critical point is that these alternative institutions of power will reduce reliance on the functions of the bourgeois state to such an extent that it is no longer vital to society’s reproduction, and any revolutionary overthrow cannot be resisted. Initially coined by Lenin to describe the situation after the February revolution where the Soviets existed as an alternative power structure, the term has come to mean many things in many contexts. Here we are not concerned with dual power as a power-building and consciousness raising tactic, but as a revolutionary strategy. If your contention is that the strategy outlined above is a viable revolutionary one to pursue, you must address the greatly increased complexity of bourgeois power today. Military and healthcare are two simple but significant examples. Military power across much of the globe is considerably more formidable than when Lenin was writing, and how do alternative, decentralised structures combat this? How is any emergent rival to avoid being crushed by an increasingly threatened state power? Similarly, both in terms of technology, skill, and coordination, decentralised healthcare is not easily implemented. Why then, would these alternative structures of power gain the support of the people if they cannot provide the same level infrastructural support?
These are pertinent questions for any adherent of a dual power strategy for revolution. Once again, this does not mean it is not possible, but that the conditions appear to be unfavourable, and if this is your model of change, you will need to articulate the conditions in which it is possible, and whether those conditions are likely and/or capable of being generated. Of course, dual power also refers to much smaller scale “skilling up” and reducing reliance on the bourgeois state, not as an overarching revolutionary strategy, but as a mode of ongoing class struggle. The utility of such action is not being questioned here. Often endless rounds of disagreement stem from the lack of clarity around the question, particularly in relation to strategy. Strategy for what?
We’ve outlined a number of live and difficult questions that face those with revolutionary politics. The reason we are setting up this publication is to attempt to provide a space to perform this type of analysis. We do not plan to do this as a small grouping, or to simply publish those who already have platforms, but to encourage those who are disenfranchised to explore their own assertions in a substantive manner. Anything published is open to responses and critique. This should be a space for generating and sustaining dialogue. The history of revolutionary theoretical development has been one of dialogue. Every leap forward is a response to what came previously, often resulting in an overcorrection that is refined and rowed back subsequently. This is a tradition worth fostering in a period of considerable fragmentation. In reference to the replacement of “thing” with “process” and “relation” in Marxian dialectics, Bertell Ollman notes that,
“The assumption is that while the qualities we perceive with our five senses actually exist as parts of nature, the conceptual distinctions that tell us where one thing ends and the next one begins both in space and across time are social and mental constructs. However great the influence of what the world is on how we draw these boundaries, it is ultimately we who draw the boundaries, and people coming from different cultures and from different philosophical traditions can and do draw them differently.” (Ollman, P.13).
Whether you want to frame this approach in terms of dialectics, or systems theory, the critical aspect is that categorisation - how we draw boundaries - is a socially mediated process. Each of us is constantly making categorical distinctions based on our knowledge and experiences, and each of us is capable of valuable and rigorous contributions to the wider body of revolutionary knowledge. If all this feels overly couched in the language of science, it is because there is a need for greater precision, and greater focussed critique of our history and our present. We do not have the luxury of large sample sizes. The number of attempted revolutions is incredibly small, considering the huge number of variables to account for. This will never be a predictive science, but we can at least move towards a better descriptive approach, where we attempt to identify which aspects of the past map smoothly onto the present, and which are alien to the current moment. We believe that everyone is capable of engaging seriously in this process. The skills involved can be grasped by all, and - like any muscle - benefit from repeated use.
If we have sounded like we don’t have faith in the extant left, it is because our faith doesn’t lie with the organisations and networks that leave many of us as alienated as do our day jobs within the capitalist mode of production. Instead our faith lies in the potential of the constituent parts of the left, those that have the capacity and creativity to affect real change in the world. This is a small project, started by - at the time of writing - five people. Realistically its reach will be small - a fact that might seem at odds with the grand rhetoric in this editorial. But let us be blunt here. If you are a communist your goal is to change this world forever. Regardless of how many read this, we believe the scope of our analysis - and by “our” we mean all who share this goal - should attempt to match the scale of the task ahead. The Black Lamp is not intended to be a place for exiles to huddle in the warmth, but a forum for dialogue with the goal of understanding the world we live in, and taking our cues towards action from that understanding.
Marx, K., 1818-1883, 1963. The eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte : with explanatory notes. New York : International Publishers, .
Ollman, B., 2003. Dance of the dialectic: steps in Marx’s method. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, Ill.
Przeworski, A., 1985. Capitalism and Social Democracy, 1st ed. Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139171830