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Lessons from the October Revolution

Today is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of Russia’s October Revolution. The revolution was a monumental occurrence, filled with both great potential and great pitfalls. Some of its potential was quickly realized, such as settling scores with the Russian ruling class and advancing the idea of working class power (even if only in a limited fashion), while the pitfalls were both self-imposed by mistaken ideas held by the Bolshevik leadership and imposed by forces trying to strangle the nascent attempt at socialism.

Most of the Bolsheviks were genuine revolutionaries in intent, Lenin among them. One can’t read Lenin’s “The State and Revolution”, written just before the October Revolution, and not see a commitment to a stateless, classless future. However, Lenin was to crash upon the rocks of his own Jacobin instincts. Lenin’s thesis that the working class cannot achieve revolutionary consciousness without the leadership of a vanguard party is a dangerous elitism that can only point toward authoritarianism in practice, no matter the intent.

It’s possible to understand the October Revolution as inspirational in a historical context while also grasping the contradictions in the Bolshevik model as it developed. Gulags, secret police, and centralization of authority aren’t going to magically lead to the state withering away, no matter how much an article of faith it is for Marxist-Leninists, and I’m not sure a ruthless state apparatus like that is what Marx (or even Lenin before the Revolution) conceived of as a dictatorship of the proletariat. The legitimate need to suppress the old ruling class and defend the gains of the revolution can quickly become used to justify the suppression of any opinions unauthorized by the vanguard party, especially those that threaten its authority, the People’s Stick being turned against the people.

Certainly there will be a transition period between capitalism and communism, and where the institutions of the former haven’t been completely smashed, one would expect to see their influence wane as the working class progresses toward the latter. Depending on how thorough and widespread the initial revolution is, the transition period could be ephemeral. At any rate, if the transition period follows the Bolshevik model, it’s extremely unlikely that such a powerful state could wither away in the Marxist sense first theorized by Engels, which while not libertarian, is certainly not a position in favor of an increasingly more repressive state, either. What the transitory structures may look like is a topic to be further explored, but suffice it to say, states, and those who benefit from their positions within them, don’t willingly surrender their power.

I find the way the Bolsheviks dared to throw themselves into the crucible inspiring in a certain sense. The ability to roll the dice, to risk it all, is a quality that revolutionaries need. It’s what the Paris Communards of 1871 had, and the Spanish anarchists of 1936, too. At the same time, the flaws and failures of the Bolshevik model inspire me to realize a libertarian model of revolution, to conceptualize genuine liberation. A false idea of revolution that idolizes the masses while simultaneously seeking to control us cannot lead to liberation in a meaningful sense. A vanguard party simply cannot substitute itself for the mass struggle of a revolutionary working class. Organization is necessary for the working class, but the vanguard party model of organization must be rejected. One hundred years on, that’s one of the lessons to be learned from the October Revolution.

“The future still belongs, more than ever belongs, to communism, but a libertarian communism.” –Daniel Guérin


Seattle General Strike of 1919

An event in Seattle’s history that’s generally forgotten today, one that could have been historic had it continued and spread.

The Seattle general strike, 1919

Seattle General Strike (The “Life during the strike” section of the article is especially informative.)

The 1919 Seattle General Strike

For several days, workers demonstrated that they could organize to run things without the bosses. It’s no wonder it’s an event that’s little known in the US today.

Cecily McMillan’s Guilty Verdict

The “justice” system is a fiction to protect the powerful. Woe to anyone who defends themselves from police assault, because the “justice” system will punish you even further. The judge did everything to ensure the jury would only get one side of the story, but even if that weren’t the case, so many people blindly support the police.

Cecily McMillan’s guilty verdict reveals our mass acceptance of police violence

This Day in Resistance History: The Battle Behind Cinco de Mayo

Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy

To many people in this country, Cinco de Mayo has become a day to celebrate the Americanized version of Mexican culture. Supermarkets have specials on taco shells, tomatoes, and salsa. Bars have Cinco de Mayo happy hours. Some communities have fiestas on the 5th of May. But most people here don’t know what event is being remembered on this day, and many Americans believe that Cinco de Mayo is Mexico’s “Independence Day.” It’s not; in Mexico, this day is not even a national holiday.

What Cinco de Mayo is, most compellingly, a reminder of the struggles that Mexico has endured against imperialistic interests, and how often those struggles have taken place throughout Mexico’s history. The day is the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla, a key event in an invasion by France to seize control of Mexico not long after the Mexicans had managed to free themselves from…

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Trayvon Martin

Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted. Let that sink in for a moment. You can stalk, confront, assault, and kill a young black man, then claim self-defense, and a jury composed of five white women and one Hispanic woman will acquit you.

The American criminal justice system has failed again, but for black people, when hasn’t it failed? The American penal system warehouses black men at a dizzying rate, which is reflected in a social ideology that views black males with suspicion. Did Zimmerman leave his home with the intent to kill that night? I doubt it. But when he saw a young black male in a hoodie walking down the street, he immediately viewed him with suspicion, thinking he didn’t belong and was a criminal. Zimmerman had a history of reporting black males to the police as “suspicious.”

Trayvon Martin’s only “crime” was walking while black, a crime that ultimately saw him executed by a wannabe cop, a wannabe willing to use lethal force after his victim fought back. I believe the evidence supports that conclusion.

No reasonable person could accept Zimmerman’s narrative that out of nowhere Trayvon went crazy and attacked him, while shouting “you’re gonna die tonight, motherfucker!”, a line of dialog straight out of a bad Hollywood movie, usually the kind featuring a white vigilante (or cop) cleaning up a city where the villains are non-white. It’s as cartoonish as it is absurd, but no doubt it played better to jurors than the testimony of Rachel Jeantel, who was smeared in the media and in the court of public opinion simply for being a young working class black woman.

The jury just wasn’t able or willing to draw a conclusion based on Jeantel hearing Trayvon shout “get off me!” or Zimmerman’s past behavior of reporting black males as “suspicious.” It’s consistent with a study that shows a “stand your ground” defense increases the likelihood of a not guilty finding when a white person is accused of killing a black person. This wasn’t strictly a “stand your ground” defense, but it was close enough.

Look at the case in Minnesota of CeCe McDonald, a black trans woman, who was attacked by a white Neo-Nazi and his friends, and killed him in self-defense, yet she was the only one charged with a crime. The white woman who broke CeCe’s cheekbone was never charged with a crime. Like so many black working class people, CeCe was railroaded into accepting a plea deal to avoid a lengthy prison sentence.

We don’t live in a post-racial society. We live in a society predicated on white privilege. We generally lack the kind of racist terrorism that was once common, where black people were publicly lynched or crosses were burned on lawns, but our society is weighed down by white privilege, and by obvious extension, black non-privilege. It’s still a form of white supremacism.

Under the current bourgeois legal system, the only hope for any small measure of justice for Trayvon is a federal charge of a civil rights violation against Zimmerman or a civil wrongful death lawsuit against Zimmerman by Trayvon’s parents.

As a revolutionary socialist, I believe the real solution requires the capitalist system, that great fomenter of racism to keep workers divided, to be smashed. Only by abolishing the current social order can we create the change in consciousness necessary to destroy the underlying causes of racism and privilege.

My sympathies are with Trayvon Martin’s parents. First they lost their son, then they watched his killer walk free.

LGBT Liberation

The Stonewall Rebellion began on 28 June 1969 when New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a bar in the Greenwich Village neighborhood that catered primarily to gay men, but also to some lesbians and transgender people. Unlike previous raids, this time the patrons fought back. The Rebellion grew to involve 2,000 protesters doing battle with 400 police officers over several nights. The chant of “Gay Power!” became a rallying cry for oppressed sexual minorities worldwide.

Some of the participants were Black or Hispanic, placing the Rebellion firmly in the broader context of the social uprisings of Black and Hispanic people against oppression in 1960s America. Black and Hispanic trans women like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were among the notable participants.

Some activist groups formed in the immediate aftermath of the Stonewall Rebellion, like the Gay Liberation Front groups in both the US and Britain, were also anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist, and anti-capitalist, arguing that the liberation of LGBT people, and the sexual liberation of all people, could only happen as part of a broader class liberation struggle.

The idea of LGBT liberation has slowly been lost as marches commemorating the Stonewall Rebellion began dropping “Liberation” and “Freedom” from their names, replacing them with the less radical “Pride.” Today, most of these events are sponsored by corporations, and LGBT identities have been commodified and absorbed into the ideology of the bourgeois social order.

We must demand full equality for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people in all spheres of life, while recognizing that equality under the current unequal system is not liberation. Further, rights and privileges must ultimately be detached from marital status, so that family relationships are defined by the people in them, not the state or the church. People’s rights should not be determined by their willingness or ability to participate in state or church sanctioned arrangements.

We must recognize that  LGBT liberation requires a revolutionary change in society. Full sexual and gender liberation for all people can only happen if existing social institutions, and the mode of production that props them up, are abolished and the archaic values they represent are swept aside with them.

Religious bodies have exerted their influence to oppose civil laws promoting LGBT equality, while promoting homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia. This is an example of the archaic values which must be swept aside.

We must demand an end to all homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic religious bodies attempting to impose their beliefs on society as a whole. We must stand against theocracy and for secularism. Religion must not be imposed on anyone nor used to justify the dehumanization of LGBT people.

Revolutionary change will affect our understanding of family, relationships, sexuality, and gender, as those all reflect the nature of the society they exist within. Under capitalism, relationships and sexuality are commodities. Marriage and family reflect existing property relations. Under socialism, they will reflect new social relations.

We must condemn all physical and legalistic attacks against LGBT people, and we must stand in solidarity with the victims of homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic violence. We must demand an end to all violence and intimidation against LGBT people, including mistreatment by police and other authorities.

Further, we must recognize that LGBT people of color are doubly oppressed in the United States by white supremacism (including within the LGBT community), which must be condemned and combated.

We must demand an end to biphobia from some gays and lesbians, and we must demand an end to transphobia from some gays and lesbians, and trans-exclusionary radical “feminists”.

We must demand that all people regardless of age have free access to information about their bodies and sexual health, unfettered by political and religious doctrines that transform natural human bodily functions into matters of “sin” or disease.

We must demand that the medical and psychiatric establishments stop enforcing sex/gender apartheid through the creation of false diseases and the denial of medical care. We must oppose so-called “reparative therapies” that propose to “cure” sexual and gender diversity, as they are merely another form of violence against LGBT people.

Further, the social pressures placed on people to conform to narrowly defined gender roles must be combated and eliminated, to advance the liberation of all people.

Each human being has an inherent right to define their own sexuality, whether it’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, heterosexual, asexual, or whatever label they choose to apply to themselves, and each human being has an inherent right to define their gender and to make decisions about their bodies based on those definitions.

Neither the state nor the church should have the authority to deny these rights.

Further, these rights are non-negotiable. No concessions should be made to bigots, no matter who they are or how they cloak their prejudice.

Onward to full liberation for all sexual orientations and genders!

My Political Influences

My introduction to socialism was through the writings of Daniel De Leon, a Marxist who was the leading theorist of the Socialist Labor Party of America from 1891 until his death in 1914 (I was briefly a member of the SLP in the early 1990s). De Leon’s primary contribution was a relatively detailed blueprint for organizing both a revolution and a post-revolutionary government, that he called socialist industrial unionism, and which bore some resemblance to both syndicalism (although De Leon was critical of anarcho-syndicalism) and the later council communism (and De Leon’s advocacy of the necessity of a revolutionary political party also set him apart from that tendency).

This naturally led directly to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the fathers of scientific socialism and dialectical materialism, who provided the necessary tools of analysis for seeing through and critically assessing the economic power relations society takes for granted.

I read Rudolf Rocker‘s Anarcho-Syndicalism at some point after that. Perhaps the most important thing I took away from De Leon was the socialist industrial unionism concept, which was a form of syndicalism, so Rocker’s work represented a similar perspective.

Daniel Guérin‘s Libertarian Marxism? and Towards a Libertarian Communism were also part of my political development.

In Guérin’s words: “Libertarian Communism, as I understand it, is a combination of the best of both anarchism and the thought of Marx” and “the future social revolution will not be Muscovite despotism nor anaemic social-democracy…it will not be authoritarian but libertarian and self-managing, or, if you like, councillist.”

Guérin was bisexual, and supported queer liberation. He wrote that “the revolution cannot be simply political. It must be, at the same time, both cultural and sexual and thus transform every aspect of life and society,” and that queer liberation “will be total and irreversible only if it is achieved within the context of social revolution.” These views also influenced me as a queer woman.

I was also influenced by James Connolly, a Scottish-born Irish revolutionary syndicalist. During the years he lived in the United States (1903-1910), he was a member of De Leon’s SLP and the Industrial Workers of the World. He returned to Ireland in 1910 and became an organiser for the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, then the most radical union in Ireland.

Connolly is best known for his leadership of the Irish Citizen Army, initially formed as a militia to protect striking workers in 1913, and later taking part in the Easter Rising of 1916 (Lenin would later describe the ICA as “the first Red Army in Europe”). Connolly was executed by the British for his role in the uprising.

Rosa Luxemburg, the Polish-born co-founder of the Communist Party of Germany, was another influence, particularly her view that the socialist reconstruction of society “must proceed step by step out of the active participation of the masses; it must be under their direct influence, subjected to the control of complete public activity; it must arise out of the growing political training of the mass of the people”.

I do have some theoretical disagreements with Luxemburg, particularly her views on the question of national liberation. She felt it was divisive and had no progressive role to play, whereas I agree with Lenin’s post-1916 views (influenced in part by Ireland’s Easter Rising–before then, his views had been closer to Luxemburg’s) that social revolution is inconceivable “without revolts by small nations” and that anti-imperialist liberation movements can be progressive.

Anton Pannekoek was one of the theorists of council communism, which advocated a model of revolution and post-revolutionary government that was radically decentralized and based around democratic workers’ councils.

While I have some fundamental disagreements with V. I. Lenin, I also learned from him. He made important theoretical contributions relevant to imperialism, and I also learned from the Bolsheviks’ example that a model of revolution based around a revolutionary party, particularly one “whose leadership is the essential part of the liberation” (quoting Pannekoek), can be problematic.

There have been other influences, of course, but these are the ones that have consistently defined my political development, and explain why I’ve been variously described, or described myself, as a Libertarian Marxist, Marxian Anarcho-Communist, or Syncretic Marxist, and why I reject vanguard party dictatorships in favor of the self-liberation and self-rule of the working class.

Having said that, I’m too Marxist for anarchists, and too anarchist for Marxist-Leninists, Maoists, etc., but to quote Guérin again: “To call oneself a libertarian Marxist today is not to look backwards but to be committed to the future.”

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