[NOTE]: If you think this piece is advocating “doing nothing” or “historical determinism”, you need to finish reading the entire thing. Also, if you want to get an idea of what I believe are the tasks for communists today and in the future, take a look at both How Can We Move Forward? and Why Is Working Class Self-Activity the Transformative-Revolutionary Agent under Capitalism? (And Related Questions).
Agitate, educate, organize?
The Left is plagued with the unspoken and implicit premise that revolution is a matter of consciousness-raising or ideology-spreading. Consciousness-raising (or the ideological model) is the idea that revolutions are made by communists/socialists agitating and organizing the masses until a critical mass of the working class population adopts socialist ideas (of the correct party line, of course), and that only then can the socialists/communists lead the masses into a revolution. The consciousness-raising model is shared by (most) anarchists and (all) Leninists alike, and the consciousness-raising model finds its logical culmination in the vanguard party, in which the most advanced members of the working class (in reality, mainly progressive members of the petty-bourgeoisie and middle classes) organize together to preserve the exact text of the holy precepts of revolutionary theory, inject socialist consciousness into the masses of the working class, and lead the proletariat to begin struggling against and then vanquish capital.
These two links are to an article and book, respectively, that provide a good critique of the consciousness-raising model, which is in fact an ideology-centric model and thus an idealist perspective on how revolutions happen (because it says that revolutions are made by spreading ideas until a critical mass of ideas emerges).
In contrast to the idealist consciousness-raising model, I claim a materialist perspective (as I believe Marx and Engels would) in which revolutions are made by material circumstances [see note 1] (such as economic crises or war exhaustion [see note 2]) and revolutionary theory develops spontaneously (without the need for intervention by conscious communists, though said intervention can sometimes help and sometimes hurt) around revolutionary events, as seen by the independent emergence of councilism in Russia 1905, Germany 1917, and Hungary 1956. There is no need for a vanguard party to inject socialist consciousness into the masses. Nor is there a need for voluntarism in which a party is somehow able to jump ahead of material circumstances and force a revolution to happen. However, there may be a need for communists to preserve revolutionary theory, aside from perhaps just intellectual self-amusement. The proletariat will re-invent revolutionary theory when it is pushed into revolutionary action, but reading and writing books is still a useful task, as it helps communists clarify their ideas in a time of revolutionary ebb, when communist ideas are not prevalent in the public consciousness. By clarifying their ideas, communists can then intervene in revolutionary events in the best way possible, so as to hasten the success of the revolution and to beat back the tides of reaction. In any case, there is no necessity for the proletariat to read Marx specifically or understand all three volumes of Capital specifically in order to make revolution, because revolutions are not made by ideologies, but by material circumstances forcing a class into action.
Here’s some Engels (Principles of Communism) refuting both the vanguard party and the consciousness-raising model, as well as giving more evidence for the materialist model of revolution:
Communists know only too well that all conspiracies are not only useless, but even harmful. They know all too well that revolutions are not made intentionally and arbitrarily, but that, everywhere and always, they have been the necessary consequence of conditions which were wholly independent of the will and direction of individual parties and entire classes. But they also see that the development of the proletariat in nearly all civilized countries has been violently suppressed, and that in this way the opponents of communism have been working toward a revolution with all their strength. If the oppressed proletariat is finally driven to revolution, then we communists will defend the interests of the proletarians with deeds as we now defend them with words.
In addition, in The German Ideology, Marx and Engels give their formula for consciousness and revolution:
Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is, necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.
Marx and Engels say here that communist consciousness on a mass scale is forged inside the revolution; it does not exist before the revolution because “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas”. Only in a period of dissolution of the ruling class will the ideas of ruling class lose their power and alternative ideas have a chance of ascending to mass public consciousness.
Finally, here is the Preface to a A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, where Marx states that:
The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, … to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.
Consciousness is determined by the material base of existence and it is foolish to assume that mass, majority communist consciousness will somehow be generated under the capitalist mode of production. Only when the capitalist mode of production is in the process of dissolution will there be contradictions in the economic base that will be reflected in the development and propagation of alternative consciousnesses to the widest reaches of the working class.
Even if the consciousness-raising model is wrong and the materialist model of revolution is right, the role of communists is not to sit in their armchairs and let the revolution just happen. As Engels mentioned, communists will participate in the revolution and “defend the interests of the proletarians with deeds”, which means that communists should participate in militant working class actions at least as much as any radical worker. In revolutionary circumstances, communists should also aim to combat all organizations that aim to lead the proletariat and thus co-opt the energy of the workers’ movement, with an eye towards crushing those who would instate a state capitalist coup with red flags, in the name of the working class. Communists can even serve the task of circulating ideas and co-ordinating working class struggles (without putting themselves in the role of leadership over the working class). To be able to do this requires some level of organization of conscious communists and we can call said organization anything we want, but for historical reasons dating back to Marx and Engels, we usually call it a “party”. I am not anti-party but anti-“vanguard party”.
[Note 1] I only give here a materialist formula for how revolution starts; I say nothing about how the revolution would play out. How revolutions play out is dependent on a large number of factors, including but not limited to the presence and relative strength of organizations that will co-opt or destroy the real movement of the proletariat, what portion of the class has been pushed into militant action by material circumstances, whether or not the proletariat is able to implement communizing measures immediately, the strength and distribution of the global revolutionary wave, etc.
[Note 2] The reason why the proletariat is the revolutionary agent under capitalism is because the mere self-defense of proletarian interests under a system of capital accumulation inevitably brings the proletariat in direct conflict with the bourgeoisie and with capitalist relations of production. Crisis is a symptom of this conflict with the bourgeoisie and bourgeois relations. This perspective is distinct from accelerationism because the crisis is a result of workers’ power: eventually the workers’ pursuit of their collective self-interest comes into violent contradiction with the entire system of private property and alienated wage-labor. Every single revolution with proletarian content has been preceded by a generalized economic crisis, and this isn’t merely coincidental but shows us that crises lay down the foundations for revolution.