Revolutionaries: An Urgent Call for Civility (Yes, Even Online)
This is a message for Revolutionaries, for radicals committed to liberation from systems of oppression. Socialists, communists, anarchists or anyone who recognizes the need to overcome the capitalist mode of production, neoliberal hegemony has its tentacles wrapped around the globe. Ideology is more ubiquitous and tenacious than ever before. If this is just a game to you, stop reading now. If you slap a radical label on yourself in a attempt to fit in with the cool kids, boost your social media stats, or rage against your dad at thanksgiving dinner, then this message is not for you.
A Sobering Look at Our Situation
If we are going to be serious and committed to the Idea of Communism then we must take a sobering look at our current situation. The situation is dire, at the beginning of the 21st century, we are no closer to a Revolutionary Event that we were at the beginning of the 20th century. The material conditions today and the development of the revolutionary subject are very different than they were a century ago. The industrial revolution and the systemic organization of the workplace gave rise to the revolutionary proletarian consciousness.
These particular material and social conditions present between the latter half of the 19th and the former half of the 20th century implied, by their changes, a general direction in the development of history. This general direction could be described by the term “modernism”. The modernist era made evident a teleology of history. While this view of a historical teleology is not orthodox marxism, it is present in Hegel, whom Marx’s theory of dialectical materialism is derived from. Theorists saw the progression of history and social development as directional and moving towards an implied end goal, fulfilling a certain logic or reason. This led to the idea of a certain inevitability in the movement of history towards a fulfillment of human liberation. We could say that the historical teleology was conscious in Hegel, and unconscious in Marx.
Today, in our post-postmodern era all such assumptions have been uprooted and nothing is considered certain or absolute. We can no longer assume that the movement of history will inevitably lead towards an overcoming of capitalism. On the contrary, the failures of the Soviet Union and other 20th century communist projects cast a doubt on this historical certitude.
We are all familiar with Francis Fukoyama arguing that the movement of history had reached a kind of limit. Fukoyama asserting that human social development had found it’s culmination inth liberal democratic capitalism. He argued that small local historical changes were possible but that overall, the march of civilization had reached a plateau. All we could expect in the future awas various locally diverse arrangements of liberal capitalism. This idea has been disrupted. As Slavoj Zizek argues in First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the 2008 Great Recession marked the end of certainty in the neoliberal western democratic political and economic orders, respectively. In other words, in the early 21st century, we reached the end of the end of history.
The future can certainly get better for the disempowered people of the world, but it can also get much worse. There is no reason to assume that being correct about our social or economic theory will bring any guarantee of historical necessity. The future is now radically open, there is no assumption of a “teleos”. As Nietzsche declared that “God is dead”, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Fukoyama marked the death of history. Today we are living in an era where the historical teleos is but a phantom, haunting us from a century ago. As we know from literature, the problem of ghosts is a problem of unresolved trauma, or “unfinished business”. A century after the Bolshevik revolution, are we seeing the unfinished business of the past returning to haunt us? Must we, as Zizek states in “The Idea of Communism” resolve this unfinished business by “Beginning Again from the Beginning”?
It must be obvious, with the radically different material and social conditions that we cannot simply replicate what was done a hundred years ago, we cannot expect it all to happen again. There will be no second Bolshevik Revolution. We must be ever vigilant in our efforts, we must fight for everything. The Revolution is ongoing, but it is not certain. The Revolution is extremely fragile, contingent, ready to fall apart or worse, turn into a reactionary pseudorevolution like we see in the rise of neofascist movements.
We cannot expect an inevitable failure of capitalism to bring us to an inevitable revolutionary event. If the last century has taught us anything, it’s that the capitalist system has a unique tenacity and ability to thrive even in, or especially in times of economic crisis. In America, 30 years of stagnant wages, runaway inequality, culminating in the 2008 great recession has created an environment of criticism towards capitalism. This is made evident by young people growing comfortable with the term “socialist” and their support for Bernie Sanders and the DSA. While this offers us a glimmer of hope and presents an opportunity that must be seized, we should take nothing for granted. What is far more likely, given the current neoliberal hegemony, is that the governments of capitalist nations will find that authoritarian structures combined with Neoliberal economic policies such as we see in Singapore are perhaps the “fittest” arrangement in the Darwinian sense. If this serves the interests of Capital better, is this not what we should be expecting in the future?
Lamps in the Darkness when the World is Against us
After the fall of the Soviet Union, in a time when Capitalism is hegemonic and ubiquitous, it can easily seem that the world is against us revolutionaries. This perspective of holding onto correct ideas against an entire world of opposition is a feeling that communists share with Christians. Christians perceive themselves as being on the right side of history, fighting against the mainstream culture and all the forces of the world, to be finally vindicated by the totality of history and absolute universality. Christianity is far more effective at winning support from people than communism is. Christians place a high importance on how they represent the faith to non-believers, in an ongoing effort to win converts.
The irony here is that christians have faith that ultimately all things will happen according to God’s plan, even if it requires direct divine intervention. Communists have no such assurance of divine providence, so it is all the more crucial for communist the be careful and diligent in the mission to win hearts and minds. Mao Zedong, critiquing the theoretical work of Stalin said “Communism cannot be reached unless there is a communist movement”. It is undeniable that any progress towards revolutionary goals, even if we are just preventing counter revolutionary victories, can only be attained by a purposeful and growing revolutionary class.
Let me be clear on this: unless the working class and lumpenproletariat are actively engaged and growing as a class conscious political entity, we can expect only further death, exploitation, and oppression as global capitalism finds ever more ruthless forms of expression. We are seeing not only a privatization of the means of production, but a privatization over entirely new domains of the commons. Intellectual and creative spaces are being privatized, modes of expression, and even our own biology is falling further into the domain of privatized Capital. The revolutionary movement must be growing, must be active, must be mobilizing people, must never take it’s own progress for granted.
Towards this purpose, communists can learn from Christians how to thrive in hostile environments winning converts and training disciples. Revolutionaries must take on the mindset of the Disciple, which primarily requires discipline.
Consider the model of Christ’s ministry: born a poor subject of the Roman empire, a colonized person on colonized land, Christ spoke to the victims of imperial conquest and taught them a praxis for growing a movement, a movement that the empire would try with extreme violence to crush, a movement that ran contrary to the ruling ideology of the time, a movement which would eventually grow large enough to overtake the empire and spread beyond as the empire crumbled behind it. This movement which, starting with 12 followers, eventually spread around the globe and include billions of people, the largest religion in the world. At the beginning of his ministry, Christ went to some working class fishermen and told them “Come with me, and I will make you fishers of men”.
The Revolutionary is Always Engaged in Ideological Warfare
Regardless of your personal opinions about the Bible or Christianity, we cannot deny that this mission to make “fishers of men” was successful at an unprecedented level. Then and now, the message was always the same for followers of Christ: you are in the minority, the world is against you, this will not be easy. We are like lamps in a world that has been befallen in darkness, offering a light to others who are lost, and turning them into lamps to find others.
I argue that this is the attitude that Communists should have in their efforts, understanding the high stakes and odds against them, but being ever-ready to share and grow the movement, to win supporters. Currently, the majority of the world are potential allies, potential revolutionary subjects, but they are shrouded in the darkness of ideology. How should communists approach the world if we accept that the world is full of potential allies captured by ideology? Short answer: Very Carefully.
What We Are Doing Wrong
There is a problem on the left, especially on the internet, which cannot be ignored. Leftists will be quick to dismiss activities online as unimportant. While i agree that the work we do face to face, organization or service work is the most fruitful, I cannot simply disregard my daily interactions with others on social media on web forums.
The simple truth is that just about everyone spends many times more hours online that they do working directly in person. For many people, talking with others or consuming media online is how they first become politically active. Most of us were reading or discussing these matters on forums or social media before we ever attended our first meeting or paid dues t an organization. We greatly underestimate how our words and actions online impact people. Allow me to give a light hearted example: consider the following topic — Anime. How do you feel about anime?
I’m going to guess that most people reading this may not be total experts on the topic of anime, but i’m sure everyone has a spontaneous feeling, positive or negative, towards the thought. This is because even if you have not taken the time to watch hundreds of hours of anime, you are still familiar with it. Anime fans are everywhere, memes are everywhere, our culture is saturated. The fans of anime have made themselves known. Perhaps they have convinced you that anime is weird stuff for creepy people. Perhaps they’ve convinced you that anime is an interesting and cool form of art. It doesn’t really matter, the point is that, before most of us might begin watching anime or learning about it seriously, anime fans already helped us formed some impression of it, and this may very well influence how open we are to learning more or accepting it.
Likewise, there are millions of people who have never attended a socialist meeting, never joined an organization, or never read Marx or any left wing theorists. Certainly there’s millions of people who have never supported socialist causes, policies, or candidates. Regardless, all of these people already have some impression or feeling towards the idea of communism. These impressions have been formed in part by deliberate propaganda efforts, but more often they are formed by the simple cumulative interactions with self-identified revolutionaries. These interactions happen far more frequently in online spaces.
The Bible stresses strongly the injunction to be mindful and conscientious about the impressions we make on people, as representatives of the faith in an everlasting spiritual battle. If you call yourself a Leftist, socialist, communist, or even an anarchist, you must recognize that you are a lamp in the darkness, and you are to shine the light of the truth of our purpose. The best way to allow this is to purify yourself and minimize the personal egoistic attachment you make. Like a glass of water which light shines through, we serve this purpose best by allowing our inner waters to remain clean and still, rather than distort the pure truth with our own sins and egoistic attachments. At all times, we should be mindful of how our conduct is making impressions on potential future allies or enemies. Wherever you identify as a revolutionary, whether at work, in public, on social media, or anywhere else at all, you are always already engaged on an ideological battleground.
This is not good for the Left right now because, unfortunately, our spaces (especially online) are highly toxic and repellent. Left spaces are feeding grounds for the most exclusionary, distasteful, unhealthy, and ultimately repelling behavior. A certain problematic phenomenon as arisen in left wing culture. Self-identified Leftists, eager to appear the most zealous or radical of their peers, mistake “edgelord politics” for truly revolutionary politics. They seem to think they having the most extreme language and aggressive behavior is somehow indicative of their sincerity or authenticity. This results in disgusting, rude, even childish behavior amongst leftists who want to dominate the space, label their peers as enemies for the performative act of purging them from the space. We end up with people who agree on over 90% of issues aggressively trashing each other to signal their own superiority or ideological purity. With comrades like this, do we even need enemies?
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve witnessed self-identified socialists calling each other cops or fascists or crypto-Nazis or whatever else they can come up with. Insignificant disagreements over trivial matters leads to the classic calls of “fascist scum needs to die I hope you get the fucking wall” as a matter of worn out routine. There is a strong tendency in left wing circles to shame anyone who has wrong opinions or who isn’t already 100% in agreement. Rather than taking the chance to dialogue and educate, to discuss things, sharpen our critical skills and help each other grow, there is an ever present threat to conform to correct opinions of be treated as a Nazi. Anyone who isn’t already “woke” enough will not find helpful discussion, but attacks and delegitimization. This forms a self-defeating pattern of preaching to the choir while alienating any potential allies who aren’t already converted.
In my own experience, living in in a highly reactionary state, I’ve found myself on the end of attacks, accusations, insults, ridiculous misrepresentations, dog piling behavior and blocking. Most of these are from my fellow leftists, not reactionaries. Ironically, i find it easier to have a discussion about our disagreements with a reactionary conservative than many self identified socialists or communists. The former knows we disagree and is happy to have a discussion as long as I maintain respectful. The latter will immediately tear into me the moment I ask the wrong question or phrase something improperly or will even start calling for help to dogpile based on their opinion of me from 30 seconds of interaction. I cannot help but think someone else experiencing this, who isn’t already a firm committed believer, is likely to be pushed away from the movement, soured by their interactions. How many members of the working class or lumpenproletariat have been disengaged, turned away, or worse, caught up in reactionary fast food ideologies which seek to seduce exploited working class people by validating their feelings and offering intellectually lazy answers?
What we need on the left is discipline. Hedonistic luxury communism is not helpful or good to strive for. It is capitalism which enslaves its subjects by offering them the illusion of freedom to pursue their desires. In the way that capitalism actually binds us to serving our exploiters and serving the system by letting us have bourgeois freedom, we must then find actual freedom by submitting ourselves to servitude and ethics. We must learn from the Christians, and become lamps in the darkness. We must recognize the dire nature of our situation and seriousness of our cause, put aside petty arguments, and build a growing revolutionary movement. Comrades, let us hold ourselves to the highest standards of righteousness, and become fishers of men.