Revolutionary Optimism in Despicable Times

This post is part of our online forum, “Black October,” on the Russian Revolution and the African Diaspora

BLM protesters in St. Paul on August 31, 2015. Photo: Fibonacci Blue (Wikimedia Commons).

“Life is not an easy matter… You cannot live through it without falling into frustration and cynicism unless you have before you a great idea which raises you above personal misery, above weakness, above all kinds of perfidy and baseness.” —Leon Trotsky

Perhaps the idea that the United States has entered an era of deep social decay was once controversial. Today the assertion seems utterly banal—a commonsense acknowledgement of our grim realities.

Not a day goes by without another assault on democracy. The vestiges of social protection for workers, women, immigrants, and other vulnerable groups are being stripped away. Killer storms reveal the volatility of our warming planet and the collapse of our plundered infrastructure.

The Charlottesville atrocity has flushed from the woodwork even greater swarms of white supremacists. Meanwhile our latest flirtation with nuclear apocalypse is furnishing more evidence that there is no war the militarists cannot foist on an inert American public.

As the regime in Washington pursues its demonic agenda, the so-called party of opposition does little more than look on in disgust, assuring the people that it remains, by comparison, a far more desirable manager of global capitalist empire. It does so, of course, to help prepare progressives and others to accept as Democratic nominee in 2020 what will surely prove to be another warmongering Wall Street lackey.

Amid such degradation, is it any wonder that many working people simply abandon most forms of political engagement, retreating into the privatized spheres of amusement and escape sanctioned by ruling elites? So what if such withdrawal further undermines our potential for collective activity? Choosing numbness over despair appears to be one of the few acts of agency still available to everyday folk.

Contemplating revolution in such soul-crushing times may seem like a ridiculous exercise. No doubt more modest goals—resisting gentrification or combating police brutality—occupy most people of conscience who can still find the will to fight. What, then, are we to make of the approaching centennial of the Russian Revolution? Is the idea of a complete transformation of the social order still relevant? Or must we dismiss such notions as absurd anachronisms and get on with the mundane tasks of survival?

Let me acknowledge the obvious: it is difficult to imagine a people’s revolution dawning in the U.S. today. Sure, groups like the Democratic Socialists of America have experienced rapid growth, and some tendencies within the Black Lives Matter movement have embraced a markedly anti-systemic agenda. Overall, however, the mechanisms of working-class mobilization remain weak while the forces of reaction appear stronger than ever, bolstered by white nationalist fervor and by a prolonged period of corporate domination.

Still, dispossessed Americans cannot afford to relinquish the dream of popular rebellion. For the promise of a society that puts the last first—no matter how unlikely such a development may seem—is the beacon that must guide everyday struggles for dignity.

What follows is a defense of revolutionary optimism. Faith without work is fantasy; we cannot simply wish away the status quo. But when combined with a program of grassroots organizing, envisioning revolution can be a vital part of our radical development. It can expand the parameters of our political imagination; assure us that the masses and not the possessing class are the motive force of history; lift us above individual misery; and connect us to a rich heritage of human agency that winds through the past and unfurls into the future.

Anonymous engraving of the Battle of Vertières that ended the Haitian War of Independence

That heritage began in the age of slavery. Before the birth of Marx, and long before the arc of 20th century insurrections, the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) rattled the world. The enslaved workers of Saint-Domingue, in liquidating a brutal ancien régime, fulfilled the true meaning of liberté, a principle that emanated from the French Revolution of 1789. Their successful uprising terrified the white west and birthed a sovereign black nation. It also established a legacy of self-emancipation and militant anti-colonialism that easily eclipsed the egalitarian dimensions of the American Revolution (1776), a bourgeois affair fought, in part, on behalf of the interests of “New World” slaveholders.

But the first truly modern revolution occurred in a later epoch against the backdrop of the Great War and the maturation of capitalism and imperialism. It is important to note that the Russian or Bolshevik Revolution began in 1917 with mass strikes and demonstrations commemorating International Women’s Day. Women were never ancillary; they were leading actors in the popular resistance to Tsarist rule. Often we recall Lenin’s genius in converting Marxist theory into the applied science of revolution. Yet we must also remember the self-organized workers who helped transform Russian society from within, forming autonomous councils or “soviets” and beginning to reallocate wealth, property, and power.

The Russian Revolution was a genuinely global event. The creation of the Soviet Union was hardly its crowning achievement, for the concept of “socialism in one country” appeared to violate the spirit of proletarian internationalism. Indeed, the advent of the first socialist state was designed to stimulate worker insurrections throughout the world.

Despite Lenin’s recognition of the significance of African and Asian liberation movements, and despite the Communist International’s commitment to fomenting revolution in both capitalist centers and colonial territories, many European Marxists continued to assume that white laborers in the industrialized west would play the leading role in smashing bourgeois society. It would fall to workers of color and inhabitants of dependent nations, heirs to older forms of anti-imperialist resistance, to seize the initiative, and forge revolutionary traditions of their own.

And that is precisely what they did. Over the next several decades, oppressed people throughout what we now call the Global South expanded and enriched the legacy of 1917, forming not a continuous lineage so much as a constellation of radical struggle.

In 1949, insurgent peasants who had long endured semi-feudal conditions helped Mao’s Communist forces topple the government of Chiang Kai-shek, a regime deeply entangled with the imperialist west. American capitalists bemoaned the “loss” of China, a country that was never theirs to possess. But throughout the world, colonized and subjugated people saw the Chinese Revolution as a millennial event that heralded the fall of imperialism and the return of the darker masses to the stage of history.

Fidel Castro and Malcolm X. Photo: Carl Nesfield.

Another significant moment arrived in 1959. It was then that Castro and Che’s band of guerrillas descended from the Cuban mountains and overthrew Batista, the lapdog of Yankee imperialism. For years, Cuba had served as a hedonistic playground for the wealthy while much of its population wallowed in poverty. Now the island nation emerged as a bulwark of anti-racism and anti-capitalism on the doorstep of the American colossus.

Indeed, throughout the second half of the century, the “wretched of the earth” launched or consolidated revolutions in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Insurgents in Vietnam, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Grenada, and other lands confronted corrupt rulers, often with guns in hand, and attempted to usher in the new society. Their movements were hardly mere reverberations of the Russian Revolution. Yet the events of 1917 helped inspire them, affirming their conviction that, with proper organization, workers and colonial subjects could defeat their class enemies and seize power.

Now, one should never romanticize revolution. The left-wing insurrections of the 20th century were notoriously bloody. Insurgents faced staggering setbacks, reversals, and defeats. The post-revolutionary orders they established were rife with political and moral contradictions. If some liberators instituted sweeping social reforms, others reproduced the repression and exploitation they once had decried.

My purpose here is not to defend any particular revolutionary government or experience. I am simply suggesting that every authentic liberation movement, in the course of its ascent, captures the genuine social aspirations of a wide segment of the people. Whatever its eventual outcome, revolution is an essential expression of popular consciousness. It is the ultimate manifestation of the conviction that the old regime can no longer be tolerated.

Today many Americans detest the social misery that surrounds them. Yet too few believe another world is possible. We would do well to remember that oppression is not inevitable; daily battles for hegemony must be fought in the street, at the job, and on the terrain of consciousness. Even in a culturally backward country like the United States, where racial hostilities are entrenched and private property is god, oppressed people have the capacity to awaken, mobilize, and radically restructure society.

What if we viewed movements such as Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and the Bernie Sanders upsurge not as false starts but as opening skirmishes in an escalating war whose greatest clashes lie just ahead?

Yes, revolution is elusive. Festering grievances rarely morph into organized class struggle. But this does not mean that history has ended. Insurrectionary impulses reside wherever profound suffering and inequality exist. So let us brush away disillusionment. Let us peer beyond the barren horizon. Let us bear in mind that we were born to fight, and that history is ours to make.


Russell Rickford

Russell Rickford is an associate professor of history at Cornell University. He is the author of We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination. A specialist on the Black Radical Tradition, he teaches about social movements, black transnationalism, and African-American political culture after World War Two. Follow him on Twitter @RickfordRussell.