Lenin framed the number one question - What is to be done? - back in 1902, and ever since theory-minded activists have found it the ultimate stumbling-block. And probably much more so today...
What for and with whom? These two questions may tentatively be singled out as the major theoretical forerunners of any endeavour aiming to transform the shithouse we're stuck in.
Before tackling them, it may be well worth remembering, right at the outset, what the late Egyptian marxist Samir Amin (1931-2018) said about the present prospects. Given that the "really existing capitalism" is clearly not viable (1), he said, there are two future possibilities: one is that we'll get rid of it but, then again, things may very well go from bad to worse. He added that both scenarii, along with the identification of their root causes, should inform our thinking in order not to go astray. He said this at the 2006 World Social Forum in Bamako (2).
So, then what? What is one to aim for, here and now? Anyone giving some thought to this question cannot fail to note that there is a vast array of issues that unsettle people and take hold of their minds. Climate change, racial divide, free trade violence, bullshit jobs, financial dictatorship, war of all sorts, refugees, extreme inequality and so on, you name it. Don't fret, there's a noble cause for everyone. But isn't that the whole point?
As Frederic Jameson recently remarked, bankers don't have that kind of problem (3). They are all motivated by the same one and only "issue" and it's money grab. When they meet, they don't hassle over the agenda. They don't even have to meet or discuss anything, the one and only driver pops up spontaneously. They're united behind that banner, no questions asked. Whereas, on the other hand, their enemies seem incapable of raising a decent united barricade.
It is largely a result of what some call "identity politics" - although "selfie culture" would probably be a much better qualifier. Whether it takes the form of sexual self-image, lifestylish eating habits or tribal soul-searching, it partakes of a frantic narcissistic drive. Each and everyone is his and her own sect demanding of all the others acclaim and respect. The message is: love me.
And even when this quaint activism turns into predictably short-lived mass protests, as with the Occupy movement, the Arabian Spring wildfire and probably also the French Yellow Vests tidal wave, it remains rudderless, and fiercely, self-destructively so. One cannot but recall Haeffner's remark regarding the failure of the leaderless German Revolution of 1918-20, stating that Lenin's success, on the contrary, was due to his fourteen-year long exertion to build a strong body of professional revolutionaries (4). Please keep that in mind.
Old hedgehog Mao again
So, what it is one to do, to paraphrase old Lenin? Leftish ideas-cruncher Slavoj Zizek lately brought forth Mao's thesis on how to deal with contradictions, stressing the importance of distinguishing principal contradictions from those that are merely secondary (5). In doing so, Zizek made some strange assertions, stating that the "Macedonian quarrel" between Greece and the former Yugoslav province actually mirrors the principal geopolitical contradiction between the EU/US/Nato and Russia, but then, widely off the mark, suggesting that it should be resolved through a "reasonable" compromise of the secondary EU-biased kind. Smokescreens are sometimes hard to evade.
But in the main, he's right of course. There are a great many secondary foes attracting a great many smokescreen-fighting people taking to the street to no avail. What is lacking is the hedgehog's big idea. Take a glance at the climate change conundrum for instance. Sometimes, on the placards, you see in brightly lettered words: change the system! Which is the natural big-idea approach. So far, so good. But how does one change "that", the vaguely designated "system"? The placard doesn't say of course and probably nor could its bearer.
Give 'em hell
In his numerous texts appealing to change - er - the system, the aforementioned Samir Amin often stressed the primordial importance of inflicting to the US a military defeat. In an old scrapbook of mine I found a short piece by the French news agency AFP reporting that, on Wednesday the 20th of December 1972, rockets had been fired at the US embassy in Beyrouth (Le Monde, 22/12/72). The assaillants had left a visit card with the words "Greetings from the friends of Vietnam who will hit you wherever you are." In my recollection, similiar action was taken in Athens. Well, that was a long time ago. Nowadays, in Europe, it's mostly illiterate jihadist morons that use violence and, then, quite indiscriminately.
Whether inflicting such a defeat corresponds to the big idea for refuzniks in Western Europe (or in the US) remains a matter of debate (but the meekness towards Nato & US headquarters in those parts is at times bewildering). That big idea is more home to third-world people.
Where hovers the red star?
So, what would the big overreaching idea be here, what's the principal contradiction one ought first and last to adress and direct one's mind and deeds to? Change the system? So okay but in what direction? Not that long ago, the answer was obvious: towards socialism, as a first step. That meant dispossing the possessors, guardians of the old decrepit world order. Easier said than done.
They may be but a tiny minority (the 1%, remember) but they have at their disposal an army of bureaucrats, armed forces, pen-wielding associates, academic and journalistic bedfellows and so on and so forth (6). Worse: they manage to channel activists into numerous deadend alleys cluttered with quaint colourful goals that don't disturb them in the least. Do those goals serve the cause of socialism (system change, that is): that's the question one always has to ask and analyse. It does, in turn, entail some theoretical thinking. There's a long way to get to that point.
Of mice and men
So it would be a good opening for starters to ask friends and like-minded fellows what the number one goal looks like in their mind. I have often thought of doing that and I probably will, soon. That kind of question is closely linked to its practical sequel, the "how?" (to achieve the goal, maybe the hardest part) and then again "with whom?" (achieve it), also a tough nut.
Again, when you climb the historical ladder a bit, the answer appears to have been rather clear cut in the old days: it's the proletariat against the bourgeoisie. The demise of the working class has, however, been widely proclaimed since - although the major social trend worldwide points towards mass migration into the salaried capital-created sphere (be it predominantly in the third world, too far off for many to perceive).
True, the picture of the Western home turf does look akwardly split: the former working class has morphed (disintegrated, rather) into underpaid self-employed errand boys, drifters within the jobless economical wasteland, zero-hour desperados, isolated teleworkers, undeclared illicit migrants, call-center zombies, a never ending array of shitjobs in which the happy few enjoying rather good pay and job security floats like island of aristocratic privilege in an ocean of misery.
The national liberation front, remember
So? The 99% versus the 1% has the advantage of being easely grasped, but doesn't quite help to build a structured front. Giving some thought to the Yellow Vests uprising, the French activist and member of Parliament François Ruffin recently noted with some urgency that the educated city-dwellers must unite with the rural presumbably thick-headed protesters (7). That does simplify things a bit: a union of two oppressed classes. Well, maybe.
But then there's the growing electoral attraction of so-called "populist" and "alt-right" parties that have highjacked quite a number of formerly working class and revolutionary demands, chiefly among them national sovereignty (cfr. Vietnam & Cuba f.i.). No wonder so many people of the underclass feel happy with that. It's another conundrum. Hardly nobody on the Left wishes to be associated with statements coming from those quarters - thereby accepting to have their own positions (negatively) dictated by the said neo- or pseudofascist parties. It'll take time to clear up that mess.
That kind of confusion and, surely, many other things. The battle of ideas is probably crucial. What we think (and say) reflects the thinking of the dominant class, as Marx pointedly said. This demands to take a very close look at most notions adrift in leftish discourse. The issue of (mostly self-proclaimed) civil society participation in decision-making for instance: the dominant class loves that, it weakens the state and the whole parliamentary democratic process. Another example: the seemingly sympathetic individualistic grass-root rejection of big top-heavy organizations such as the trade unions: the dominant class just loves that too, it splits all potential threats to its place in the driving seat. Gender-tinkering and all the rest: it's the same pat on the shoulder, have your fun my lovelies, it doesn't disturb us a bit.
That said, let's unconclude by calling these musings the first of two parts. Next, I'll revert to what friends and like-minded fellows think about the Big Idea.
(1) It is probably no matter of coincidence that during a very short time span (January 2019) two political commentators on either side of the Atlantic came to somewhat the same conclusion, Christopher Caldwell stating that, as revealed by the Yellow Vest revolt against globalised misery, "Europe is dead." (The Spectator, 5 January 2019) and Noam Chomsky that, with the "American dream" gone and done with, "It's all collapsed." (The TLS, 11 January 2019).
(4) Sebastian Haeffner, "Allemagne 1918: une révolution trahie", 1969, its second 1979 reprint translated in French by Agone, 2001, reprinted 2018, page 137.
(5) "How Mao would have evaluated the Yellow Vests" (21/12/2018) https://www.rt.com/op-ed/447155-zizek-yellow-vests-france/
(6) Check Georges Corm's superb description in "Le nouveau gouvernement du monde", 2010 (La Découverte).
(7) Fakir, n°87, November-December 2018.