Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Why history matters for radicals today

When new social struggles erupt, there is always a tinge of novelty that is completely unlike anything that came before. Part of that has to do with the nature of struggles from below, which tend to open up a kind of self-emancipatory maneuvering space previously foreclosed by the structures of the dominant order. And, of course, for those most radical of all struggles—revolutionary social transformations—we witness, as Trotsky puts it, "the forcible entrance of the masses into rulership of their own destiny." There is a thus sense in which the "direct interference of the masses in historic events" can never proceed according to a preordained script laid down ex ante. Stronger still, in order to even be a genuine social revolution, events must, to some extent, involve certain spontaneous energies that emerge in the course of collective self-activity for which there is no exact precedent.

Now, it would be easy to conclude from the above that contemporary radicals have no need of history. In periods of increasing social struggle, it's easy to think: "who the hell cares what happened in Paris in 1871 or Russia in 1917? The future won't ever follow the course of past struggles." As far as it goes, this is (in some ways) the right perspective. Contrasted with a fetishistic or dogmatic approach to history (which I'll explain in a moment), this anti-historical political approach has certain virtues. But if this approach succeeds in throwing off certain yokes, it is remains shackled by many others.

To fetishize history is to say that knowledge of it has some kind of intrinsic political value. It is to say that history is, as such, just politically important to know and that's all there is to it. "Serious" radicals simply have to know every detail or else they are politically deficient in the here and now. Accordingly, those who know every obscure historical detail must, on account of their political wisdom, be deferred to by those who don't.

It's not difficult to see that this position is flawed. Historical knowledge does not (and should not) translate into direct authority to command others about what to do in the present. And, as I argued above, genuine social revolutions from below, as self-emancipatory upsurges of a special sort, just aren't the sorts of things that be expected to follow an exact, pre-ordained script handed down from above.

The view that "history just matters and that's all there is to it" is, on reflection, untenable. After all, how much of history matters? Does the number of leaves that fell on the ground in the fall of 1917 in Petrograd matter? Does the evenness or oddness of the exact number of fish in the Baltic Sea in 1905 matter? Of course not. Neither are important for revolutionaries today. So it remains to be explained why some features of history are relevant for us in the here and now whereas others aren't. But explaining what's relevant for us requires that we refer to our own political context and our own practical goals in the here and now. Any simple "look, history just matters" style explanation won't tell us why certain historical facts are significant for us right now whereas other aren't. So the view that history—all history—is simply something revolutionaries have to know (for its own sake) is untenable.

This insight is easily misunderstood.

It would be easy, for example, to conclude that the implausibility of the fetishistic historical perspective means that history just isn't important whatsoever, no matter one's reasoning. If we assume that there are merely two alternatives here: one of fetishizing all of history, on the one hand, and one of abstractly rejecting all of it, on the other, then the rejection of fetishism seems to imply that we should accept the wholesale rejection of history.

But, of course, these aren't are only two options. History is of immense importance for contemporary radicals, but not because it bears some mystical intrinsic value.
The key, is to connect our present predicament to the questions of the relevance and importance of history. Ultimately, what we should say is that history matters for political reasons.

So, the trouble with the a general attitude of impatience toward history is that it throws the baby out with the bathwater here. In (correctly) rejecting the fetishistic/dogmatic approach to history, it (wrongly) concludes that history as such is basically a political waste of time. But dismissing the history of struggle as irrelevant to the present is a grave political mistake.

It is a mistake for many reasons, but at least one of them is that such a posture is performatively self-contradictory. All social struggles—whether or not all of the participants explicitly say so—involve historical consciousness of some kind or other. One doesn't invent the idea of a mass march or a demonstration or an occupation out of whole cloth in the 21st century. To some extent, every demonstration or march inescapably draws on the experience of past marches and demonstration. And it's a good thing too, because it would be a terrible state of affairs if radicals had to re-invent the wheel every single time they engaged in struggle. Fortunately we don't—as politicized people we find ourselves in the position of having already learned from the history and experience of past movements of people fighting back against oppression and exploitation. This is how words like "sit-in", "factory occupation", "strike", "mass march" show up for us as meaningful phrases in the first place. If we know about such tactics at all we know about them from some form of historical consciousness.

But if we already rely on some kind of tacit historical consciousness, it seems obvious that the more reflective we are about it and the more we can deepen it, the better. The fact is that the experience of past social struggles provides contemporary radicals with an extremely rich source of insights about what worked and what didn't, what pushed struggles forward and what caused them to derail and crash. It is also detailed source of tactics, strategies, slogans, ideas, concepts, organizational forms, etc. that we would be foolish not to consult today. Learning about past struggles can expand our own political horizons and unsettle conservative assumptions about what's possible in the here and now. As Jean-Paul Sartre said about the events of May 1968 in Paris, "if it took place, then it can happen again." That is powerful stuff, and it unsettles the assumption that something like that could never happen here. When we think of the fact that most everyone judged May 68 to be unthinkable before it happened, its even more incredible. It's much easier to move contemporary struggles forward with the self-confidence that comes from knowing what past struggles were able to accomplish.

I'd like to share example that illustrates my point here. When struggle exploded in Wisconsin last year, I went there to be part of the collective fightback. I'd never seen anything like it: hundreds of thousands of people flooding onto the streets of the capital in defense of basic union rights. Growing up in a period of relatively low levels of struggle, I had no experience to draw on in figuring out which way forward. Now, I had some experience to draw on—innumerable betrayals by the Democratic Party, for example, convinced me that they were a fundamentally conservative constraint on the movement (this proved to be correct). But I had no experience, and little detailed knowledge of what it takes to put together a successful string of strikes—and I certainly I had virtually no experience with the idea of a general strike. The idea of a general strike was actually in the air in Madison—even the president of the Firefighters union said he'd endorse one—but objective conditions ultimately militated against it. Of course, as of last winter it had been more than 70 years since there was a general strike in the United States, so many of my friends didn't even know what a general strike was. I assume that this must have been true for many of the people active in the movement. For any serious radical the conclusion to draw here is obvious: the knowledge of past struggles—especially general strikes!—is a potent weapon that contemporary movements must lay hold of.

After the struggle in Madison was defeated, I tried to learn as much about general strikes as I could. Of course, this meant plunging into the history of the working class movement in the United States. It meant learning about the Minneapolis Teamsters strike in 1934 and the role that radicals played in leading it. It meant reading about Toledo and San Fransisco in 1934, the sit-downs in 1937, the 1946 Oakland General Strike, and many other struggles.

Looking back at these struggles wasn't just an opportunity to gleam tactical and organizational insights. It was also a source of inspiration, because it made clear that people can fight back and win. We aren't alone. We're part of a long tradition of emancipatory struggle from below and that should give us self-confidence. It was also liberating to go back to the history of struggle because it made clear that we don't have to start from scratch. We don't have to re-invent the wheel. And the status quo isn't unassailable, natural or inevitable. People have successfully challenged previously "unassailable" regimes of power in the past and succeeded in shattering them into pieces. We have to learn from their successes and failures if we're to avoid stumbling through their mistakes and ignoring their strengths. There's a good reason, after all, why we're not taught about this stuff in school.

Whether and how history matters depends on what one is trying to do. If one is merely trying to elect some schmuck to misrepresent us for 4 years, the history of the Black Panthers in the US is probably not that relevant. But once one arrives at the conclusion that genuine social transformation is needed, the following question arises: what does it take to make that happen? The only place to look here is to history. No amount of abstract reflection on the nature of the concept of revolution will settle the matter. Only the trial and error of mass movements and radical organizations from the past gives us any direction here.

Occupy is, to be sure, a movement that has no exact equivalent in history. But neither is it 100% unprecedented—it clearly draws on the experience of other movements and is rooted in an international tradition of struggle. We contemporary occupiers have everything to gain (and nothing to lose) from, for example, learning about the events in Paris in May 1968. A look at May 68 will hardly give us all the answers to what we should do next. But it gives us a rich array of political ideas and energies that can only sharpen our analysis of the present. The same is true of the experience of radical social movements in the US throughout history.

What the experience of Occupy has made clear for me thus far is that oppressive social conditions breed resistance. When you shit on people long enough, eventually they rise up and fight back. Capitalism produces social struggle. But if it is inevitable that people will fight back, it is not inevitable that they'll win. History is strewn with more defeats and setbacks than it is with victories for our side. In order to make sure that spontaneous upsurges of resistance are not squandered by avoidable failures, we must return to the historical experience of our sisters and brothers who've fought back before us.

That means, in particular, returning to the periods of history when social struggle reaches a fever pitch. Those periods of white-hot social struggle are the episodes we can learn the most from. That's why its worth paying attention to how the Russian Revolution was won (and how it was lost). That's why its worth looking back and figuring out why the German revolution ultimately failed. That's why its worth examining the experience of the Paris Commune in 1871 or learning about the successes (and failures) of the Black Panther Party.

It's not unthinking fetishism. It's simply a recognition that history can be a weapon. We'd be crazy not to use it.

1 comment:

Richard said...

personally, I believe that the history of the Italian workers and autonomous movements from the late 1960s through the late 1970s are important

one finds that similar issues rose to the surface, the relationship of radical activists to workers in organized trade unions, the difficulty of balancing participation in autonomous direct action with the urgency of creating a collective society movement, the extent to which decisionmaking processes were hierarchical or horizontal, the challenges caused by the mobilization of power outside any organzed social or political structure, and the suitability of violence as a means to compel political change