Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Reform, Revolution, and the Inevitable Collapse (A Response to Franklin V.H.’s ‘An Inquiry into the Revolutionary Question’)

 “It would be better to dump the whole stinking system and take the consequences.”  Ted Kaczynski

The relentless and impressive dialectician Franklin V.H. has written a beautifully-crafted polemic concerning the ever-present issue of “reform and revolution” which still afflicts socialist circles like a lingering fever1. Franklin is astute in noting, of course, that this topic is a plague that has bedevilled The Left for centuries. It is the cause of endless infighting and, perhaps, one of the main factors which has impeded the elusive “leftist unity” since time immemorial. With this piece, Franklin seeks to cast aside the 19th century dogma of reform OR revolution, and argues that one does not preclude the other. That is to say, Franklin posits that reform and revolution really are not mutually exclusive. He holds that they can in fact work synergistically like a twin-headed dialectical snake whose self-consumption paradoxically drives society towards socialism.

One immediate question that arises with this article is whether the issue of reform and revolution has historically split Marxists. As a whole, The Left has been burdened by a never-ending discussion of the topic. However, I would argue that most Marxists (in the strict sense of the term) espouse a Marxism that is of a revolutionary tendency. That is to say, Marxism as an ideology includes, a priori, the necessity of revolution to cast aside capitalism. Even some modern parties such as the Socialist Party of Great Britain, which promotes a parliamentary road to socialism at the ballot box, admit that the “vote” is for revolution and is not in itself reformist2. Franklin eloquently writes that “despite common misconception, it is not the will or power of the party that determines socialism” and yet this is precisely what reformism does. It hands over the reins of power to a party, thus diluting active socialism into meagre political socialism. Such parties are at risk of rapidly weakening their original goal and tend to instead become obsessed with retaining parliamentary power and relevance. Rudolf Rocker once expounded this point most clearly when he wrote in 1938 that “political socialism has lost itself so completely on the dry channels of bourgeois politics” and “never rises above the advocacy of petty reforms”, thus dooming the entire venture to failure3

Franklin refers to a “tipping point” whereby “the contradictions of capitalism grow in quantity to the point where they are untenable and as such launch society into a new revolutionary phase”. Indeed! The intrinsic contradictions and paradoxes of capitalism doom it to collapse. One could describe the spectre of breakdown as being baked into the very system. However, and this is where I break from orthodox Marxism, this does not mean that socialism follows as an inevitability. Instead, the dissolution of capitalism could be so destructive that it leaves behind no discernible human society whatsoever. If the whole techno-industrial system (of which capitalism is the mode of production and prime mover) was to collapse and extinguish all or most conscious life with it, then how would socialism ever come to fruition? The “tipping point” described by orthodox Marxism does indeed exist. Be that as it may, the true nature of this societal climax was established by Ted Kaczynski: it is in actuality a point of no-return of runaway, self-propagating technology which, once reached, leads to catastrophe4. As a self-propagating system, techno-capitalism acts according to the laws of natural selection which operate in all environments containing multiple competing systems, be they living organisms or modes of production. It possesses short-term survival advantages that increase its likelihood of continuation without heed for the long-term detrimental side effects of said advantages. This, when combined with the might of modern global capitalism (mass communication and transportation) necessitates its eventual disintegration. This is because, unlike biological organisms or natural habitats, the scale of the techno-capitalist system is massive. As such, any change or fluctuation is likely to have massive, exponential and globally consequent effects – just observe how a blockage in the Suez canal caused world trade pandemonium5 or how the mutation of a bat coronavirus in one locality of China rapidly brought society to its knees6.

It is worth exploring these concepts further. Firstly, techno-capitalism is a complex system with a multiplicity of interconnected, interdependent parts. Due to this cascading, disseminating, networked complexity, it is impossible to accurately predict the exact effects of a change in one facet of the system with respect to other facets. Secondly, self-propagating systems such as techno-capitalism are arranged in such a manner whereby there are smaller subsystems dependent on larger super-systems. When the super-system collapses, its diminutive subsystems also perish. This is exemplified when an organism dies; its cells also die. Non-biological complex systems also act in the same manner. We can surmise, therefore, with the collapse of techno-capitalism, we would also observe the collapse of a multiplicity of other subsystems which depend on it for survival. Thirdly, there is abundant empirical evidence that the emergent properties which result from major disruptions to a complex system are unpredictable and overwhelmingly likely to be harmful, as is the case with genetic mutations7 and nuclear accidents8. Following from these three premises, and the fact that techno-capitalism is a gargantuan global system, we can deduce that an alteration in any key component, on which multiple other components are dependent, could cause an unforeseen exponential domino effect, the sum of which could be a sufficient disturbance in totality to bring the whole system crashing down, with devastating consequences. 

Furthermore, due to the way in which natural selection ignores long-term ramifications in favour of short-term survival, techno-capitalism accumulates a build-up of long-term detrimental effects which eventually come to fruition. One just has to observe the rapidity of species extinction, ecological collapse and the pandemic of mental illness sweeping the globe to accept this truth. What we have described over the last three paragraphs, I propose, is the actual “tipping point” and its consequences: not some 19th century dialectical transmogrification from a collapsing, detrimental, malign system to utopian socialism. Instead it is a probability threshold which, once reached, whether by a critical mass of technology or a single fatal trigger, would lead to dissolution of the system and immense suffering for all life on Earth. Consequently, there is a strong argument that the inevitable collapse had better occur sooner rather than later, before techno-industrial society has bloated to an unimaginable, diffusely-connected size, whereby its expiration takes the entire planet with it. As such, Ted Kaczynski himself posits that revolutionaries must act to bring the downfall of the system as soon as possible, through a revolution against technological society, to reduce the total harm caused9. There is much more to say on this idea of revolutionary collapse, especially from a Kaczynskian standpoint, but this would require an entire separate essay in itself.

Franklin is right, of course, when he admits that “no reform will be sufficiently emancipatory, or be able to launch us into a new productive phase” and thus we need revolution. However, he then misses the point when he claims that reform itself “increases proletarian power”. Any energy directed towards reformist ends is ultimately wasted energy, akin to the energy lost as heat during a chemical reaction, as the final driver of emancipation is the revolutionary factor, and any energy spent on reform is energy not spent on system-change. As such, revolution requires the totality of proletarian fervour, without dilution through reformism, no matter how well-meaning. We can of course agree that cooperatives and democratised workplaces, even within capitalism, are intrinsic goods. We should not chastise nor bemoan these outcomes, despite their establishment not contributing to the end of capitalism. Franklin goes on to explain that “the overarching ideology of the Soviet Union eventually became a servant to power as its own end, rather than to the proletariat in general” – a concise and accurate analysis. However, Franklin goes on to miscalculate the cause of this failure. He argues that it was a lack of embracing reformist tendencies, those which cause “maturation” of class struggle, which led to Bakunin’s predicted “red bureaucracy”10. There is no such need for lip service to reform here. Such a described activity which promotes, “matures” class struggle and helps to secure system-change in production or society, is revolutionary by definition. Franklin is therefore actually lamenting the lack of sufficient revolutionary class consciousness and forethought as the downfall of the USSR. It was not due to a lack of tit-for-tat political reform.

Throughout the piece, Franklin notes that “reform strengthens revolution” but goes on to outline various activities which can only be described as, well, revolutionary. Highlighting this is important as spreading such a misclassification ignores the fact that, throughout history, political reformism has been an armament of capital, liberalism and conservatism, all of which occasionally permitted small oscillations in power and policy without bringing the system closer to an end. This is key, as it exposes how Franklin’s praise of various proletarian activity as “reform” blinds the reader from the fact that reform is a powerful bourgeois tool to ensure that nothing important ultimately changes. Such words are dangerous as they could persuade individuals to accept, and be distracted by, liberal reform: a loss of revolutionary potential.  Therefore, one can conclude that no, it is not clear that “reform strengthens revolution”, rather that proletarian deeds promote revolution, and reform is utilised as a distractive, dilutional bulwark of capital against such activity. Class consciousness and revolution are interwoven but reform and revolution are diametrically opposed. Reform is, by definition, an adjustment of the existing system: a remodelling, a meddling. It is not a driver of system-change itself and should not be praised as such. Franklin writes that “the revolutionists are more correct according to Marxist theory” and it is revolution which is the final blow necessary to abrogate our malady. This is of course a self-evident a priori truth, and one can reach this conclusion without pandering to the idea of a mythical, synergistic reformism.

When all is said and done, I believe Franklin V.H. and I have a similar conception and understanding of revolution, system-change, contributing factors and prerequisites, yet we approach the question from different angles of analysis. Despite this, one cannot help but muse that this pandering to and romanticisation of reform just fuels the pervasive sense of Mark Fisher’s “capitalist realism”11. That is to say, we have experienced hundreds of years of capitalism with innumerable reforms throughout a multitude of facets of the system in various nations be it Cuba, the USSR or the USA. And yet, our capitalist malady remains. It shrugs off reform and thunders on: a persistent, self-propagating, malignant survival-machine. The end of the world, therefore, as espoused so eloquently by Fisher, is easier to imagine than the end of capitalism. Flirting with reformism will not save us from this sober realisation. Ted Kaczynski once wrote that in a sea of reformist goals “the one truly revolutionary goal—namely, the destruction of the techno-industrial system itself—tends to get lost in the shuffle”. As such, the goal of the revolutionary must be “dedicated solely to eliminating the technosystem”12. It is this point which must be understood with a deep clarity: system-change is the final objective. It will be brought about by either collapse or revolution and anything else is a distraction.

    - Mustapha Mond


References

1) V.H. Franklin. An Inquiry into the Revolutionary Question [Internet]. Franklinvh2.substack.com. 2021 [cited 26 May 2021]. Available from: https://franklinvh2.substack.com/p/an-inquiry-into-the-revolutionary 

2) SPGB. – Part of the World Socialist Movement [Internet]. Worldsocialism.org. 2021 [cited 26 May 2021]. Available from: https://www.worldsocialism.org/spgb/

3) Rocker R. Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice. 1938.

4) Kaczynski T. Why the Technological System Will Destroy Itself. 2011.

5) Nasr J. Suez Canal Blockage Could Cost Global Trade $6B-$10B per Week: Allianz [Internet]. Insurance Journal. 2021 [cited 26 May 2021]. Available from: https://www.insurancejournal.com/news/international/2021/03/26/607307.htm

6) Ibn-Mohammed T et al. A critical analysis of the impacts of COVID-19 on the global economy and ecosystems and opportunities for circular economy strategies. Resources, Conservation and Recycling. 2021;164:105169.

7) Apperley J. Chronic myeloid leukaemia. The Lancet. 2015;385(9976):1447-1459.

8) Högberg L. Root Causes and Impacts of Severe Accidents at Large Nuclear Power Plants. AMBIO. 2013;42(3):267-284.

9) Kaczynski T. Industrial Society and Its Future. 1995.

10) Bakunin M. God and the State. 1882.

11) Fisher M. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?. 2009.

12) Kaczynski T. The Road to Revolution. 2008.

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