Last Thursday night, Timothy Brown, professor of History at Northeastern University, also asked those in attendance an important corollary question to the one in his title: Who is the revolutionary subject?
This year's Humanities on the Edge speaker series, Marco Abel and organizers reminded us, takes place 100 years after the Russian Revolution of 1917, and fifty years after the global events known simply as "1968." The speakers have all taken up the theme of "Post-revolutionary futures," responding both to these anniversaries and to Frederick Jameson's famous observation that it is now "Easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism."
Prof. Brown's talk focused primarily on the events of 1968 in Europe and the U.S. and the social tendencies they expressed. But he, too, started in with 1917--in Germany, after the Russian revolution gave the world a new conception of a revolution. Marx's analysis had understood capitalism as a revolutionary force in its own right, and predicted that only after the capitalism had spread to every corner of the globe and developed fully would the proletariat revolt. So the world was shocked when the revolution came not in developed England or Germany, but in backwards Czarist Russia.
Lenin's revolution generated questions: who is the revolutionary subject? Who makes the revolution? Does it have a class basis? Is there a revolutionary class? Can a small group of militants make a revolution on behalf of a class? Is there a vanguard party? Are elections a part of revolution? What is the role of violence? In self defense? Offensive violence?
In Kronstadt, there was a revolt against the Soviets--from the left. The sailors and soldiers demanded an end to strike breaking, renewed trade with the countryside, resisted requisitioning, and called out the red terror. They were peasants, not a proletariat, and they were eventually defeated by the bolsheviks.
But this revolt from the left cropped up elsewhere, as in the Spanish Civil War, where it was witnessed and reported on by George Orwell.
In Germany, these developments meant that the left split into a rump social democrat party, a communist party, and the anarchists. The communists saw revolution as a top-down affair, while for the anarchists, it was to be organized from the shop floor.
After the ruptures of the Second World War, many of these questions resurfaced. And around the world, there as a new revolutionary subject. Youth was ascendant. A beautiful woman was throwing pavers on the poster that read: "Beauty is in the streets."
Rock and roll, sex, drugs. Were these revolutionary acts? Such questions came to a head in the U.S. in 1968, with the Tet Offensive heightening the strength and urgency of the anti-war movement. The political assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the chaos that erupted at the Democratic convention in Chicago gave the feeling of a world on the brink of revolution.
In Europe, the student-led general strikes in May brought France to a standstill, and the famous Prague Spring tried to give socialism a "human face" until Soviet tanks rolled in to crush it.
Yet Brown points to the "long 60s" to show that 1968 did not manifest uniformly across the globe; not all 1968 events took place in the year 1968. They range instead from the Port Huron Statement that founded the "New Left."
This global New Left understood this moment of rupture was different from that which led to 1917. They now assumed that that the revolution of 1917 had in fact failed. The old left's concerns of seizing the means of production were less important, perhaps because they were less possible. The admission that Stalin had murdered millions, and that Eastern Bloc countries were something less than a workers' paradise led to a resurgence of interest in Kronstadt and anarchism. This break, between students and workers, was especially pronounced in France.
The students, Brown argues, were the new revolutionary subjects because workers no longer formed a unitary immiserated class. They now lived in what Guy Debord called "the society of the spectacle," wherein the commodity form had completely colonized public life. No more did people act, they instead owned.
But those who wanted revolution, who wished to upset the status quo were now those in "marginal groups"--not the workers with a central role. Instead revolutionaries were students, the intelligentsia, radical avant garde artists, and the anti-colonial guerrillas fighting against state regimes. There resulted a convergence of people with many different interests, from participatory democracy advocates to anti-nuclear activists and beyond.
Yet after the events of 1968, and the disappointments of not achieving some of the political goals, many of these interest groups once again diverged, perhaps leading to the feeling that revolution had failed, and is no longer possible.
Yet a potential remains. In 1968 there was a sudden recognition that the young have problems, that those problems have not been named, but they need to be solved and can be solved, and others share them. People go out and see each other in the street. The printing presses start up, people have something urgent to say. Nobody really believes the “can’t” that normally governs social relations. A window opens, and for a moment, utopia becomes possible. But that moment can’t last; it fades back into normal. But still, something happens. Something not normal.
So, while 1968 may have had problems and failures, it still provides an imaginative role. It tried to connect the dots. Small separate streams tried to become a raging torrent, and they might once more.
Brown told the story of a chinese premier asked, in 1972, what he thought of French Revolution “Too early to tell,” he is said to have replied. Brown seemed to suggest the same is true of 1968.
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