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Soteriology of the Class by the Class
On the self-emancipation of the working class
Many socialists have fallen into traps of waiting for a great man to lead a revolution. Some fall for this in individual form or vanguard party form. Even in historic periods, socialists have fallen for this trap. They may perceive this messiah as a Napoleonic figure or as a class suddenly and abruptly aware of its place in the world.
Firstly, there is the great man messiah. As an example, I shall conjure for you the image of Vladimir Lenin. Lenin was not a great man. I do not believe that Lenin believed himself to be one, either. His wife begged that Lenin not be turned into an icon, after all. He wished to be buried alongside his beloved mother. Instead, Lenin was petrified, mummified, turned into an idol of political necrophilia. Lenin was a man. And merely a man, Lenin lies in a mausoleum as the twentieth century pharaoh. To declare Lenin a great man is to ignore all of the others on whom he depended. The Russian Revolution was fought by the millions of people who could no longer provide for their families. It was not fought by the Bolsheviks. But, if for the sake of argument, we say that Lenin won the Russian Revolution, who helped him and how much did he as an individual contribute to the victory? The outstanding individuals of revolution do not hold powers found in the Greek dramas or the classical epics. Lenin was not Rama; Lenin was no Gilgamesh; Lenin was not the Monkey King; he was no Superman or Odysseus. If anything, Lenin amounts to a Hamlet, a Gatsby. Lenin could be compared to Jesus, that is, if Jesus had not risen from the dead and had instead been mummified as a sign of ideological rigor mortis. The leaders of the working class are not and never have been god-men. They were, are, and shall be mere humans.
Secondly, the working class engages in the revolution, but they too are not a supernatural force. If they were such a force, then one would have to envision the bourgeoisie who have suppressed and killed revolutions as supernatural as well (and an order of magnitude more powerful than proletarian supernaturality.) The working class accumulates and shapes their class consciousness through everyday struggle and practical knowledge of the capitalist system. Class consciousness is not akin to epiphany. Class consciousness does not transform workers into god-men, akin to the way in which kings of the feudal era were viewed. There is no divine right that is given to workers, just as there was none that was actually given to the kings of old Europe. Workers are human. Leaders are human. Neither of these are messianic.
Revolution does not need a social messiah. Those that dream of the day on which the seven seals of socialism break and the resurrection of the corpse of Lenin occurs will be placidly waiting for eternity. We will not have a Red Easter to celebrate the resurrection of Vladimir of Ulyanovsk. In truth, the capitalist class benefits from this long wait. It means inaction. It means stagnation. It spells death to the movement. Rather than the red priest reciting the words of Lenin as gospel in the halls of this or that communist chapel, we must look forward, think forward, move forward.
Read Marx or whoever you fancy, absolutely. This is not an impugning of theory, as theory is a necessary part of practice as practice is to theory. Each informs the other as living things. Do not turn them into frozen, ossified altars upon which one must sacrifice. The works of Marx are not to be turned into something akin to the Jain statues of Bahubali, with vines growing up his body as he stands motionless. We must be iconoclasts to our own idols, smashing the stone skin that has grown over Marx and countless others, retrieving from Medusa’s petrification the theorists of days past. Lenin was not Jesus and he never claimed that he was. Lenin was not crucified with the isolation of the Russian Revolution and its eventual degeneration. Instead of viewing Russia as pessimists or optimists, we should instead study it and search for the weapons the Russians employed, seeing which ones fit our modern context and which do not suit us. Both passively hoping for a revolution and despairing that there is no revolution lead to the same place. Failure. There is no Rapture, no Revelations; Marx, Lenin, Luxemburg, or whosoever one has prostrated themselves to will not descend from the Red Heavens to deliver a theoretical message that will bring about the fall of capitalism. No ideological movement will do this, either. Revolution is not made by the words of leaders or ideological spirits that possess them, but the real, material works of the workers themselves against their oppression.
For messianic socialists, the greats are beyond criticism. A very special sort of dogma seeps into the movement when theory is beyond criticism. Theorists become biblical, and with the biblical comes with it too cherry picking despite the posturing of infallibility. One must be willing to stand and criticize not only enemies of the movement, but also its allies. Marx is not beyond criticism. He was not the son of a virgin, born of God. Marxists should be able to say that Marx was wrong as easily as it is for them to breathe; anarchists should be able to say that Bakunin was wrong with the same vigor. This is the meaning of ruthless critique.
Do not listen to leaders without heed. The point of a revolutionary organization is not simply to have the empty-headed masses listen to the charismatic speeches of leaders, “but getting them to speak for themselves, in order to achieve, or at least strive toward, an equal degree of participation.”1 Workers emancipate themselves; workers are never emancipated merely by their leaders (it is often that they are further chained to capital by this relation, in fact). The enlightened intelligentsia that is the perversion of Marxism is as far from revolutionary as possible.
There is another, softer, but still just as virulent messianism that pervades socialist circles: the cult of the political messiah. These are the sycophants that embody the spirit of the Second International’s Bernstein and Kautsky. This view is that of reformism. The groups that parrot this view engage in the declawing of Marx and the entire socialist movement. This is the movement for a cooperative capitalism. Their messiah is not a Lenin, but a Bernstein. Their prayers go out to their saviors by the ballot box. They are like a Chreaster Christian who merely attends their church on Christmas and Easter, but instead only going to the polls once every few years to hope that their savior is handed power by the state. Perhaps they will protest with a picket sign with all of the necessary paperwork done and their i’s dotted, their t’s crossed. Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn are the ballot box messiahs of today. The apostles of these messiahs are the likes of Chomsky and the members of the Democratic Socialists of America, and all those that put forward the idea of Lesser Evil Voting.
The pacified messianic seems to believe that the vote and the politician who has been voted for is the motor of change. In reality, the position of this or that politician is nothing but the assumption of a new face by capital. Leaving aside the fact that these democratic ‘socialists’ have a Bernsteinite view of socialism, they forget that bourgeois democratic structures are illusions of choice for the working class, doing nothing but empowering one or the other bourgeois faction. It may be so that one faction is less overtly against the working class, but it remains that they are enemies of the working class. The working class is the motor of the destruction of capitalism and its vehicle is working class organization, not the ‘left wing’ party of a given nation and the parliament, respectively. The pacifist messianic attempts to put a nice mask on capitalism when in stark contrast the task is to show the true face of socialism and proclaim “be not afraid!” Both revolutionary and pacified messianism must be rejected by a workers’ movement that seeks to empower the working class towards the destruction of capitalism and not the empowerment of self-styled Blanqui’s, democratic distorters of socialism, or the nicest of two or more bourgeois factions.
Messianic socialists are not new; Grigory Zinoviev played his part as a messianic during the revolution in Russia. Lenin, not viewed as merely a man, was a man who arrived upon the stage of history, a one in every 500 years man, akin to Spengler’s Caesar. Zinoviev made Lenin into a Christ. Lenin is not a messiah, and neither is the party; if I must use the term, the working class is its own messiah. The cult of messianism is old and must be fought still today. This age odd messianism was critiqued by earlier communists, as “It seems to me that this vague, invisible, impalpable but ubiquitous communism, which lives in one form or another in everyone without exception, is a thousand times more dangerous, than that which is defined and systematized, which is preached only in a few organized, secret or open communist organizations.”2
Here and now, the opposition to messiahs meets the initially paradoxical belief in messianic time. Revolution implies a rupture with the existing time, homogenous time. The future is unknown; socialism is not promised. Instead of relying on the political messiah of progress, fill history to burst with the energy of messianic time. A rejection of the Social Democratic vision of progress has never been fully integrated into the workers’ movement. You, reader, are now. Do not wait patiently for the messiah to enter into the future. It is up to the working class of the now-time to blast open the continuum we call history.3
The here and now creates fissures in the homogenous, creating the narrow pathways in which messianic time is able to shoot out the clock towers. This magnificent rupture of rushing immediacy is redemption. Without the illusion of the political messianism of waiting for the redemption of future generations, we could recall the Torah. In many religious traditions, Judaism included, divination is forbidden. Instead of placid waiting — recall James Baldwin’s lucidity regarding progress, how long do I have to wait? Will my grandchildren be waiting, too? — the “Torah and the prayers instruct them in remembrance, however. This stripped the future of its magic, to which all those succumb who turn to the soothsayers for enlightenment. This does not imply, however, that for the Jews the future turned into homogeneous, empty time. For every second of time was the straight gate through which Messiah might enter.”4
Messianic time can enter through the fissures of the homogenous. You, as a here and now, can use the tools at your disposal to chip away, carve, and widen those fissures. You need just recognize them and take your hammers, shovels, and other tools to them. Recognize your own agency in this situation. Carving the gate out of the homogenous is an act of revolt. Continuing on this thread that leads from Jewish thought, “It has been said that in every generation, a person is born with the potential to be the mashiach.”5 I would like to slightly twist this. If we are going to rely on the symbolism of the messiah, and that the working class has the ability to free itself, then it would follow that in every generation, there is the potential for the working class to free itself.
Guy Debord, “For a Revolutionary Judgement of Art”
Mikhail Bakunin, The Confession of Mikhail Bakunin, 40
Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History”