One-dimensional theories serving political paralysis vs a scientific understanding and a strategy that could win

“Field on Winter” Vincent Van Gogh

“I watch America. I watch its motives. We are a force for good in the world, not a force for evil,” Mr. Pompeo said.

Our Sweat, Blood, and Tears

The development of capitalism doesn’t actually run on children’s tears. Children across the world are devastated by common cruelty and neglect, by the separation of loving families due to economic need or incarceration or forced migration, the destruction of war, and so much more. Many of these tears are produced by this system, but they are a byproduct of how the system works. This system has not yet found a way to literally turn these tears into fuel, and even if it could, that alone would not steer its progression. This might seem obvious, or semantic, but if you want to end this nightmare, understanding this difference is much more important than it might seem.

Why? Because the fight we’re in for the future of humanity is not just any fight. And to win, we need to understand how the system works. Look at a boxing match. There are two fighters in the ring. Each one of them is consumed by a singular focus towards a similar but opposite goal — to keep their feet on the ground while they knock the other person down. One gets hit, they try to defend themselves, keep their head on straight and fight back. Meanwhile, when a person’s eyes are first opened to the massive oppression and exploitation all over the world, or even just a fraction of it, if they’ve got any soul in them, their first instinct is to fight back. As it should be! And there is so much to be done. A person can easily become consumed by that fight, however they see it, whether it’s between the capitalists and the workers, the 1% vs the 99%, men vs women, American empire vs the world, white settlers vs colonized people, the billionaire class vs the rest of us, etc. Some will fight any way they can, and others will fight in ways that put into practice some aspects of the better world they want to see. But essentially most see this as a fight between two opposing interests squaring off against eachother: roughly good vs evil, with good meaning the interests of the majority or of the oppressed or both (interests being either immediate or long term, either individual or collective) and evil meaning whatever force is in the way of that. But the fight to overthrow this system is different from a boxing match. Not just in scale, but in type. And mixing the two up leads to all kinds of dead-ends and defeat. Most often it leads to people giving up. If you think that good just needs to beat evil, where the fuck are the forces for good? You might know some good people personally, and one of them might show up in the news here or there, but they clearly don’t have power anywhere.

A Villain, via

People have every right to believe that the rulers are merely some villain whose goal is to torment everyone else — that is what often pops out the most in people’s dealings with the ruling class. But if you reduce it to that, then someone just has to heroically stop them, and the world will be a better place. A Hero who changes everything without challenging anyone. Maybe you could become one of them somehow. With this conception of the world, you can see every news story, every development in the world as an expression of this fight — good vs. evil — and you can begin to see every person, organization, government simply through their position in that fight. Like two armies facing each other across a field. If that’s all that there is to it, then some of these people in the news, someone with some kind of power somewhere has to be good or at least good-ish, or it’s totally hopeless.

This might seem too simple, and it is. So why would people believe it? Because for many real change seems hopeless, and in that case then why even think about it? For others, we just have to do good and then god or “History” with a capital H or some other metaphysical force will bring us to victory. And for many people who cling to hope, the weakness and flaws in their theories warn them: don’t overthink it.

Whenever the claim arises that ‘we don’t need theory’ or we don’t need leadership’ — or that an oppressed person’s lived experience is enough of a guiding light for the struggle, that anyone who’s oppressed is in the right, that Black people just need to take control of the police, or that the workers just need to take control of their factories, this good vs evil notion is an underlying assumption. Sadly, there are also some complex theories that exist just to serve this misconception, which I’ll come back to.

But if you understand that what’s driving imperialism is the contradiction between the anarchy of production and the organization of production, inherent in the capitalist system, then you can see the role of all the various blocs of capital in competition with each other and the spontaneous pull on all other forces (including the people, even those with the most revolutionary potential) to gain or manipulate capital. On that basis you can begin to understand the enormous obstacles obstructing revolutionary change, and the basis for overcoming them. You can recognize how capitalism-imperialism lays the foundation for a radically better system, and also see that such a better society will not spontaneously or organically arise out of this one. You can recognize the need for scientific leadership of a real revolutionary vanguard, fighting the power and transforming the people for communist revolution, no matter how unpopular at any given time. With this understanding you can see in what way the ruling class is positioned in opposition to the proletariat, and ultimately in opposition to the interests of humanity as a whole — that people’s exploited labor does fuel this system, but it doesn’t steer it. Pretty soon you can begin to see how we can really win.

Strategies for Resistance, Strategies for Life

This simple misunderstanding of capitalism — that this is all a struggle between good guys and bad guys, the exploited and the exploiters — crops up in all kinds of ways. It’s taught in sunday school in a wide range of somewhat unvarnished forms. But especially once people begin to rebel or resist, or even when they first feel palpably that the system is unjust, this is often the first thought that comes to mind, so basic that many believe in it without ever articulating it. It informs all kinds of strategies for life — from possibly the most generalized of “the bad guys are just too powerful, I might as well stop resisting” to convincing yourself “maybe the bad guys aren’t really that bad after all.” And it informs many strategies for resistance: “there’s more of us than there are of them, so we just gotta get organized.” Others determine that solutions come down to the identities of the rulers, or their individual character, all in relation to some a priori “good” or “bad.” Most people in most times are content with trying to find a hero or leader within this system that seems to buck the trend, who promises something, anything, better. They relegate the problem to corruption or “crony capitalism,” or some foreign influence (Putin or Israel or Saudi Arabia), or old white men, or what have you. This is all undergirded by notions of just good guys vs bad guys, unmoored from the actual dynamics that create and define these various and opposed interests.

For a few who are a little more committed, this gets overthought very quickly into the very useful postulation that capitalism is on its way out, that the third world, or “the masses,” or “the workers” are on our side — notions which unite everyone from the Party for Socialism and Liberation to various self-proclaimed Maoists and anarchists to various trotskyites, and more. All of which use abstract ideas to paper over (or theorize over) some glaring errors in this conception.

The simplistic good vs evil notion is deeply challenged very quickly when you attempt to change things. After all, most of the people who should be “the good guys” happen to think like “the bad guys” in one way or another or support them and most of the time we can’t escape supporting evil in certain ways. After all, we all have to make a living. Meanwhile almost all of human history up until this point has consisted of a minority (the ruling class) ruling over a much larger majority.

In light of these basic facts, the question becomes “who are you going to believe, theories that the people are on your side and we’re bound to win, or your lying eyes?” You can either use abstract ideas as a salve, to help you keep working towards something better, to give yourself an optimistic outlook, or you can recognize reality, dig deeper and understand the real dynamics.

As Bob Avakian has laid out “class struggle, and the overall struggle against oppression, is a driving force in society and its transformation. But the question is: What is this rooted in, what does it arise out of? What are the material conditions that give rise to, and influence and shape, this struggle, and toward what ends can this struggle be directed, on the basis of the actual contradictions that it’s rooted in? In other words, this is a question of materialism and materialist dialectics vs. idealism (cooking up ideas in your head which don’t have any real relationship to reality) and metaphysics (the notion of absolutes that are unchanging). According to certain so-called communists, you always have to say that the key thing is the class struggle, the struggle against oppression, in a way that divorces this from any material foundation. Once again, it’s not that the class struggle (broadly understood) is unimportant or is not a driving force in the transformation of society; but if that is treated as a thing unto itself, without a material foundation, then it once again becomes a matter of religion (an outlook and approach that is tantamount to a religious dogma) rather than a scientific approach to actually leading that struggle toward the abolition of class oppression and all other forms of oppression.”

Times Have Changed, But Some Theories Have Always Been Wrong

As fascism advances in country after country and capitalism-imperialism holds an essentially unchallenged monopoly on political power across the globe, the “class struggle” often seems less like a battle and more like a massacre. Capitalists continue to push the boundaries of how hard and how much they can exploit laborers, in a race to the bottom. But if the oppressed and exploited are barely even fighting, then how can the fight between them and those who rule over them shape how things develop? When you begin to examine this in that context, the whole question seems moot — of course there must be other factors shaping things.

However, there was a time when this was not so obvious, or so grim. In the mid-twentieth century, as the Communist revolution in Russia gained steam, followed by the revolution in China, inspiring and allying with a wave of national liberation struggles across 5 continents, the imperialist powers were horrified by the prospect of their system’s demise. V.I. Lenin had played a crucial role in setting off this chain of events, but died very shortly after they began. Before he passed he laid the groundwork for understanding the developments that changed the capitalism of the 1800s in Europe into the global capitalism-imperialism of the 1900’s. After his death, the international communist movement, with Stalin’s leadership, attempted to flesh out that understanding, and develop it in light of a major new development on the ground: a growing socialist bloc in direct opposition to the capitalist-imperialist system. Amidst enormous struggle and huge strides in liberating people, as well as strategic errors and political shortcomings, they developed a conception of imperialism hurtling towards, and increasingly engulfed in “General Crisis.” This replaced an overall accurate understanding (even if incomplete) of the dynamism of the Capitalist-imperialist system, where wars and other international fissures, global economic crises and recessions and depressions were a continuation in a new way of the crises that Marx had examined at the dawn of Capitalism. Marx and Lenin both correctly determined that these crises disrupt capitalism and it’s legitimacy but they also provide capitalists with an opportunity, and the necessity, to reorganize on a higher level. These crises were cyclical, like on a bike, where the tires revolve propelling the bike in one direction or another.* The new, incorrect understanding posited a vision of socialism rising, and the old order consumed by the defense of their decrepit system and the prevention of their overthrow, with decreasing returns on all of their investments, and the unsustainability of capitalism tearing it apart from within. Economic theories to buttress this position were developed, it became a major ‘selling point’ to get those who wanted to see a better future to join in the struggle, and inspired a lot of righteous action. After World War 2 and the survival of capitalism post-fascism, the notion of the imminent demise of capitalism and it’s irreversible trend toward extremes was brought into question. But modifications were made and the theory kept being resuscitated. To believe such a thing at that time made some sense; it was plausible. But it wasn’t true.

These days, with the complete dissolution of the Soviet Union, following its betrayal of the revolution and rise as an imperialist power, and the capitalist transformation of China, to believe that capitalism is crumbling and socialism is advancing is clearly nonsense. But this notion sustains many of the surviving “socialist” and “communist” formations and theoreticians, and much worse than that, it comes together with liberal illusions about a long arc of justice and inherent progress all to color and constrain the great majority of radical, progressive and liberal thinking. The ghost of this theory lives on largely unexamined (and sometimes comically explicit, as in Gonzalo’s theory that the world revolution is in the strategic offensive, the final stage before victory) preventing the kind of thinking that could actually take this dismal situation and transform it. After all, if we don’t have the people on our side, if we don’t have the third world on our side, if capitalism isn’t just going to collapse under its own contradictions, if socialism isn’t spontaneously rising, what hope do we have?

Is it even possible to go up against this system? Where does the potential or possibility of ending this nightmare come from?

Starting with the right questions

To answer these questions, as Marx first found out, means that you have to ask some different questions. In particular, we need to ask: how is this current system structured? How does this system maintain itself?

“Imperialism means huge monopolies and financial institutions controlling the economies and the political systems — and the lives of people — not just in one country but all over the world. Imperialism means parasitic exploiters who oppress hundreds of millions of people and condemn them to untold misery; parasitic financiers who can cause millions to starve just by pressing a computer key and thereby shifting vast amounts of wealth from one place to another. Imperialism means war — war to put down the resistance and rebellion of the oppressed, and war between rival imperialist states — it means the leaders of these states can condemn humanity to unbelievable devastation, perhaps even total annihilation, with the push of a button.” — Bob Avakian

The apparatus of the state functions to maintain the conditions these monopolies and financial institutions function within in a profitable manner domestically and maintain and control access to international markets, in a manner most favorable to the blocs of capital tied to their given country, in competition with other states and other blocs of capital. As part of that, those states repress, suppress, and oppress the masses of people and maintain the social relations that correlate to these production relations. But clearly if you zoom in on any part of that state apparatus, overwhelmingly at this time in history but throughout this whole epoch, the great majority of that effort is not directly linked to ‘fighting the good guys,’ but to imposing that given states’ economic, political, and ideological interests, vis a vis its capitalist competitors and market fluctuations and shepherding the masses of people towards fulfilling those particular interests.

A scene from the SWAT raid on the Black Panthers’ Los Angeles HQ, 1969

Repression, the use of force specifically to suppress dissent and revolt, clearly exists. These imperialists, and smaller capitalists as well are willing, often gleefully so, to turn their enormous instruments of violence — the military, the police, sanctions, etc — against those who challenge their rule, and even those who challenge particular injustices. Their willingness to do so, and the level of repression they are able to enforce, even the level of liberal “openness” they are able to maintain, all exist in relation to and are in large part determined by their needs and their ability to enforce capitalist order on capitalist anarchy. Even these determinations about their freedom to repress their people are often predicated on whether and how their rivals, underlings, and masters could use these heinous acts against them. Even a superficial look at the history of repression against the Kurds by Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria shows how closely such repression against movements for Kurdish rights and autonomy is tied directly to fluctuating alliances of these various states with the US and other powers. Meanwhile apartheid in South Africa served US interests as a bulwark against Soviet Imperialist influence in a geostrategic location. But once the Soviet competition evaporated, that particularly repressive form of rule proved to be too much of a liability to both South Africa and the US and it was transformed. But simplistic notions of good and evil would demand a belief that this repression, or the exploitation the repression enforces, is the principal concern of the imperialists. It’s not too far of a leap from here to notions of the Illuminati, and a wide range of similar conspiracy theories, where every development in the world is part of a conscious effort to keep the oppressed in their place. This may seem ridiculous, but its merely an exaggeration of the essential folly of the good and evil fallacy.

Riot Police prepare to brutalize those who righteously rebelled in Ferguson, MO, 2014

Even looking directly at the criminalization of Black people, wherein this system often does incarcerate, harass, maim, and murder people fighting for justice, the overall dynamic is shaped by the needs of US imperialism to subdue and corral a population made unprofitable by the workings of this very system. The oppression of Black people is one of the foundational pillars of this system due to a whole history of slavery and segregation, lynching and sharecropping with all the social relations and ideas that correspond to that.

Alton Sterling was brutally murdered by the police in Baton Rouge, La simply for selling CDs

The liberation of, or even total integration of, Black people would tear this country apart. And yet in today’s world they cannot be profitably super-exploited due in large part to the imperialists’ dominant position in the world economy, exploiting people in whole different ways in Thailand, Haiti, the Congo, etc. There are limited ways that Black people have been integrated into the dominant economy but the ‘organization’ that has been developed to contain this circumstance — a circumstance wrought ultimately by the anarchy of production — in a way to maintain the legitimacy of this system is the ‘organization’ of the penitentiary, the military, the illicit economy.

This is what has developed, and these are the forces which drove that development. But none of that was preordained. Millions of people have fought and sacrificed for the rights and the liberation of Black people. The state has murdered the leading internationalist lights of this struggle, and coerced, jailed, threatened, and exiled many more. They have disrupted, provoked, undermined this struggle, and at times drowned it in blood. Different structures to deal with these developments could very well have been implemented if that fight was not as fierce as it has been, or if it went in other directions. But the needs of American imperialism are the dynamic ground upon which that struggle has been fought, even as that struggle shook some of that ground.

Doing all that work to maintain their empire, to organize anarchy, is not a choice on their part: this system is compulsively in flux, straining each bloc to their limits against each other, and to their limits in relation to the natural world. Even as their system as a whole strains against the limits imposed by impending global warming, their alliances and “strategies” for dealing with this are dependent on each bloc’s assessment of its own survival in competition with others. When faced with threats to their whole system, the only tools available to them are the tools defined by their absolute necessity for some level of strategic profitability. The same way that we can’t just find some land and grow food to feed people, they can’t just fight global warming. They need a business plan. They can only fight their way and this is why crises are inherent to the system, regular yet unpredictable, destabilizing the system and its enforcers for acute periods, exacerbating the system’s chronic weaknesses. Disrupting profitability, alliances, and the legitimacy of the capitalists’ rule. Meanwhile, we have the potential to unite and fight explicitly for humanity.

Today as global warming accelerates and the global refugee crisis swells, as the US pursues an unchallengable position on top of the heap and all kinds of nations tighten ship to preserve their fiefdoms and relative autonomy and influence within that (even while some hope to challenge US hegemony), fascism presents itself to many ruling classes as a very desirable form of rule, if they can normalize and maintain it. The benefits of an iron grip on the populace, and the ability to force changes upon them, is beginning to outweigh the cost of losing the veneer of a popular and pluralist mandate, even in places where that math didn’t add up a decade ago. Compared to views of an eternal struggle between good and evil, the scientific communist understanding can explain what’s driving these changes happening before our eyes.

Bob Avakian has laid out the foundations of an accurate understanding of all this in a succinct yet clarifying way:

“It is the anarchy of capitalist production which is, in fact, the driving or motive force of this process [of capitalist production], even though the contradiction between the bourgeoisie and proletariat is an integral part of the contradiction between socialized production and private appropriation. While the exploitation of labor-power is the form by and through which surplus value is created and appropriated, it is the anarchic relations between capitalist producers, and not the mere existence of propertyless proletarians or the class contradiction as such, that drives these producers to exploit the working class on an historically more intensive and extensive scale. This motive force of anarchy is an expression of the fact that the capitalist mode of production represents the full development of commodity production and the law of value.” He continues: “Were it not the case that these capitalist commodity producers are separated from each other and yet linked by the operation of the law of value they would not face the same compulsion to exploit the proletariat — the class contradiction between bourgeoisie and proletariat could be mitigated. It is the inner compulsion of capital to expand which accounts for the historically unprecedented dynamism of this mode of production, a process which continually transforms value relations and which leads to crisis.”

This is also inherent to the contradictions within the ruling class in the US right now between the fascist camp and the liberal camp. While overall the Democratic Party’s role has been conciliation and collaboration, and leading others to do the same, there is real contention between the ruling consensus that they want and the fascist consensus that has the initiative. These are two distinct notions of political and economic organization attempting to deal with all the anarchy in the real (imperialist) world. This is continually forcing them into tight spots economically and politically, most notably the impeachment proceedings. Within the logic of this system, the bourgeois democrats could not NOT impeach, as their very ability to contest the fascists through bourgeois Democratic means (elections) and their legitimacy as an opposition was at stake with this illegal investigation of Biden. But also within the logic of their system, they cannot possibly win the impeachment because they don’t have the votes and they have tied themselves to the rules and norms. They can only fight their way, while again we have the potential to unite and fight explicitly for humanity.

Gradual growth or dynamic leadership?

An understanding that simply flows from the notion that the epoch of capitalism is simply a battle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie leads one to believe that these contentions among the rulers are inconsequential. ‘We just need to build our power over here, while they do their thing over there.’ Especially in these times, when the bourgeoisie seems all-powerful, this provides a static view of the world. In the face of fascism, many feel that “it’s always been bad.” You can even hear it when people say (full of hope) that Trump will make their system look so bad that people will be more likely to rise up. The strategy leading from that conception is that we just have to build our movements, patiently working towards some kind of time that we’re strong enough to beat them. Registering voters in oppressed communities, patient education, community organizing and charity work ‘brought to you by’ some ideology or organization, “base building,” idealist reformism, the fetishization of local developments and local organizing and local authenticity, cancel culture, even absurd formulaic notions of “protracted people’s war,” all stem from these notions. But the same contradictions that provide the potential for real revolution led by a conscious vanguard, also limit what disruptions and spontaneous uprisings can do. All of these things listed above can disrupt profitability. So can natural disasters or technological failures or changing alliances. Some of these disruptions can even be good for the revolution in the right context. But Capitalism will not be overthrown by an accumulation of disruptions. No force can end the generalization of commodity relations without consciously leading the masses to uproot that. Oppression will breed resistance, corporations will go bankrupt, governments will be overthrown, empires will crash, but until the law of value is consciously uprooted through socialized ownership and the political system to enforce that (the dictatorship of the proletariat), this system will remain, recruiting and literally empowering new actors to reinforce its power.

Saying that “People aren’t ready for revolution” in order to push something less than that is based in a belief that we are just trying to move a dot down a line, from bad to good. In a one-dimensional world, that would be literally the only thing you could do. Luckily we don’t live in that world, and we need a strategy based in this reality.

At various times over the past centuries movements for justice have gained momentum and grown while at other times they have been eviscerated. Many upward trends have met even more downward trends. If there is no overall growth or progress, how can people maintain this belief in gradually building our forces to victory? Often the excuse is that for some reason we know better than people in the past, that now we can see their blindspots, or that their leaders had deep character flaws. For many, this question is best left ignored

If we are to be scientific about this, we need to recognize that the movements of the past have had all of these flaws and more. But that is not the reason for their failures. Likewise, we may have all these shortcomings today and more, but that is not the fundamental reason that we have not yet seized power. We must situate all of this history in the context of the development of this dynamic system of capitalism-imperialism, the enormity of the transformation we are attempting to create, the quality and kind of ideological leadership, and the simple role of chance.

Forcing the path vs Using the whole map

History holds many lessons but none of the victories and losses we have suffered were bound to happen. The communist revolutions of the 20th century could have been turned back at many junctures. And to a certain degree, they could have succeeded where they did in fact fail. That history is an extraordinary source to advance our understanding but there has been a tendency to read too much into what worked and what didn’t, the logistics, the particularity of what developed in what circumstances, attempting to build those various experiences into larger theories, as opposed to understanding the development of global society and situating those experiences into that. Focusing on the what, and negating the how and why. We cannot predict exactly where the next “bubble” might burst, or how the contention between Iran and the US may escalate or de-escalate in the same way that it was impossible to predict who would win the second world war, or that Russia would be the site of the first real communist revolution. Everything may seem obvious, once you know how it actually worked out, but the future is unwritten and dialectical materialism is not a crystal ball. We cannot predict many things, but we can know three things:

  1. There is plenty new under the sun, but nothing has contradicted the foundational truths that Marx first discovered and that have been developed since then leading to the New Communism. All of these developments have sharpened our understanding. We can continue to analyze and understand the developments that set the stage for what is to come. The foundation and development of this science continues to be a source of understanding the fundamental answers to overthrowing this system and
  2. People broadly are capable of grasping this. There is no metaphysical or external barrier to this, but it will continue to be a struggle as long as this system is in power, and then in a different way until this system is totally dismantled across the globe.
  3. Crises will develop and the 5 stops will continue to lay the basis for disruption and rebellion. These will continue to compel people into new terrain on which to live their life, and in those moments in particular different ways of life and different worldviews will take hold, one way or another. Affecting which way that goes is where much of our freedom lies.

Here we see the profound influence of the seemingly esoteric and abstract concept of the principal form of motion of the fundamental contradiction of capitalism. We see the way that such a theory can drive the everyday actions of a vanguard party, its members and supporters. We can see the need for emancipators of humanity to lead people to overthrow this system, not merely trade union secretaries to be a thorn in its side. We can see the reality that theory is the dynamic factor in the dialectic between theory and practice. We can see how to change the world.

Fascism has another important effect on this whole equation. With the imposition of fascism, there is a conscious effort on the part of the rulers to destroy any challenge, even any potential challenge to their rule. And that does include violently going after even nascent protest, rebellion, or revolutionary leadership and exterminating oppressed populations. This remains in the service of imposing capitalist organization on the anarchy of capitalist production, but it creates a whole other level of challenge for the revolutionary leadership. We exist in a moment of fascism consolidating. This is a moment full of potential for enormous suffering, but also the potential to bust through the heightened tensions within the ruling class. In this scenario, fascism has time on its side. Our window of opportunity will close when the fascists put their foot down on even their ruling class opposition. In some ways this means they use the tactics that have been used against oppressed communities against everyone. And we have seen some folks who take a narrow view of the struggle, a non-materialist view of good subjugated people vs the evil of the dominant race, and dismiss fascism, saying that marginalized groups already face all that. But fascism also means a threat to even the continued existence of those very same oppressed communities. Now is the time for us all to act.

Good and bad do exist in this society. But that isn’t imposed by god, and it doesn’t exist outside the confines of the relations that people are enmeshed in today. Good and bad are relative to that. It’s “good for what?” and “bad for what?” If you want to maintain this current system, then good is defined by how to resolve the variety of contradictions in society in a way that maintains your rule over others: to continue to impose capitalist organization onto capitalist anarchy, with yourself or your bloc on top of course. If you want to get humanity free, then good is defined in relation to resolving the fundamental contradiction of capitalism-imperialism — of socialized labor versus private accumulation — in the interests of all humanity: ending all oppression and exploitation.

*many of the modern adherents of this general crisis theory do recognize these cyclical crises that occur but they often treat them as though we’re just peddling away on a stationary bike, or as though they are just some interesting features of the general crisis that might provide us some opportunities to educate people as to how bad capitalism is or that these crises are building up to the big one, in a way reminiscent of apocalyptic churches who set dates for the end of time, and then nothing happens, and then they set new dates, and then new ones.