Replicating Glory II: Strategy Games, Research Time, 03/08/2017

So you want to overthrow your government and entire economic and political system. Fair enough. There are crazier goals out there.

How are you going to do it? Well, a hundred years ago, the Russian Bolshevik Communist Party did it thanks to the widespread civil unrest as the First World War rippled through their society. That popular uprising against the Czarist regime of the Russian Empire didn’t have much leadership two political parties, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.

The biggest problem democratic governments and cultures face is
the idea that elections and parliaments are all you need for
democracy. This notion killed pretty much every ham-hocked
attempt of the George W Bush administration to install democracy
in the Arab Middle East, and it led to some unfortunate
complacency against the surreal autocracy of Silvio Berlusconi's
humiliating leadership of Italy.
Communists all over Europe were so inspired by the (eventual) victory of the Bolshevik Party that they planned exactly the same kind of revolutionary action. Antonio Gramsci himself offers an excellent example of how most of them ended up.

Needless to say, one of Gramsci’s main intellectual occupations in prison was a question many of us have asked at one time or another. Where did I go wrong?

In short form, the failed revolutionaries were dazzled by success that they didn’t see the real differences between their own countries and Russia. All you needed to do to throw Russian society into chaos in 1917 was engulf the country in an unwinnable war that ruins the power of the aristocracy.

Small potatoes. Happens every other Thursday.

You couldn’t pull that kind of revolution in Italy, France, or England because there was more to the establishment than just the throne and a bunch of landed gentry. The rest of Europe had already gone through bourgeois revolutions. Sometimes several. They’d built parliamentary institutions, constitutional monarchies.

There were trade and business owners’ associations. The shorthand term is civil society.

The industrialized – even sort of industrialized – countries of Europe even had trade unions that were perfectly happy with this arrangement. Or at least not so upset that they wanted to overthrow the whole society. If you read any radical communist texts from this period, you’ll see them talking up a storm about “the reformists.”

You know who those people are? Trade unions. If I can steal a term from my old country, it’s the b’ys from OPSEU local 2079. They have the big barbecue tables at the annual town regatta. They just want better wages, health benefits, and better attendance at next year’s regatta barbecue. Nothing wrong with that.

This photo of Turi Prison in Apulia* where Antonio Gramsci spent
virtually all of the last decade of his life. It was taken in 1928. I'm
amazed that any creativity was possible here, let alone some of the
most remarkable left-wing political theory of the last century.
* That's the boot's heel, if you don't know Italian geography.
Yeah, there’s nothing wrong with that, unless you want a revolution that upends the entire social, economic, and political system. Asking people to take resources away from the regatta barbecue? That’s a pretty big ask.

Seriously, though – in Italy by the time Gramsci died, even the folks organizing the regatta barbecue would have been rotting in a sunless cell. But even in secure democracies, the order of the day was under no threat.

Democracy – even one with ruthlessly unequal and discriminatory social structures – allowed people enough voice in their institutions that they saw routes to solve their social problems short of total revolution. Maybe they’re false routes, but there are still possibilities open to folks that stop short of that extreme risk.

The risk that paradise could become Stalinism.

So what do you want to do if you can’t achieve the total mobilization of everyone in a society, as the Bolsheviks did? You stick to what Gramsci called the “war of position.” A complex game of public relations, targeted direct action, attacks on concrete injustices, and complex, multidimensional political lobbying of every other interest group in the society to join an alliance with you to change the raw deal you all experience.

The problem is, if you’re doing all this, are you still a revolutionary? Or are you just another political party, with a bit of a more radical end-game program than the others? Does it even make a difference anymore?

To Be Continued . . . 

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