Planting For the Future: Experimentation for Revolution
Revolution is a word often abused and mistreated. Imperial stewards like Bernie Sanders mobilize it against the stagnant American centre-left––the revolutionary equivalent of a dip in the kiddie pool. We’re exposed to a dozen revolutions every day, informed of the radical changes that our new phones, game consoles, headphones, and cars will bring to our lives. Even among honest partisans, who commit themselves to the transformation of society, the word can carry some inaccurate connotations. I’ll speak to my own history since the way I understand revolution today differs magnificently from how I grasped it a few years ago.
In particular, I used to see the revolution as a singular transformative event, which might have been the result of conscious planning and preparation but was nonetheless an explosion that would sweep away all the dross in society. After some experience in political work and a deeper investigation of Marxist theory, however, I’ve come to see that revolution, like all social phenomena, is a process of experimentation and refinement. Watershed moments, when fires spread and change happens like lightning, still exist, but to imagine that a single bolt of activity obliterates the history that led up to it is to neglect the social problems that will continue to exist after critical points. Nor is all persistence negative: if capitalism is to be thoroughly uprooted and human life made finally free of its corruption, organizations and institutions that persist through a revolution have to be established.
These are not just political parties, mass groups, or allied organizations with a purely political or economic focus. Indeed, the war against the capitalist state is not always or even mostly a direct confrontation of forces; revolutionaries would lose every time if it were. Rather, the most vital task of the revolutionary left is to build up its own capacities and institutions, to organize people to provide their own forms of social life free of state control. Unlike lobbies and NGOs, these institutions don’t/won’t simply “represent” a mystified constituency mediated by the money economy of donations. Instead, they are the result of the people’s own initiatives, coordinated and directed through organs that are their own instruments, built from their most advanced elements. They will cover every aspect of mass struggle, from media and art production to family care to agriculture. Revolution, often fetishized as a cathartic instant of destruction and festival––though that is certainly a valid aspect of the concept––has much more to do with building. Building people, building communities, building alliances, building institutions, building a new state, all in the shadow of the capitalist state. Such a state, I should mention, will likely not suffer any rivals, being a jealous sort.
I want to focus on the problems of agriculture and sexual liberation in particular, since they both make great examples of problems that cannot be solved in one stroke or with the decrees of a revolutionary tribunal.
Robert Biel, in his book The Entropy of Capitalism, insists that our current food production system is unsustainable in the long term. Future societies, of any political stripe, will have to tackle the challenge of feeding the world while eliminating the use of fossil fuel-driven fertilizers and other intensive inputs. He names food as “the area of greatest incompatibility in principle between capitalism and the natural system,” with nutrition being essential to human survival and also currently under the control of corporate entities with little regard for long-term human flourishing.¹ In this situation, forces on the left have to mobilize the innate human tendency to experiment with new solutions for the food problem (including urban farming and low-input methods) while in dialogue with traditional knowledge about agriculture that capitalism suppresses in favour of homogeneous industrial farming.
Though emphasizing that current attempts to recenter “local” and “organic” farming are insufficient without an overthrow of the capitalist world system, Biel notes that we can’t simply dismiss these efforts. “We need to make the initial steps towards a new mode of production right now…because converting a portion of land to a thoroughly low-input system requires a period of time, during which its productivity may drop.”² Present need and future need must, therefore, be balanced in building the components of a new and sustainable society that operates within the Earth’s tolerance levels. Every successful and failed experiment contribute to our arsenal of knowledge, with which we can creatively adapt to future issues as they arise. Flexibility and a degree of pragmatism, albeit guided by theory, are the essential characteristics of a successful revolutionary movement.
Sexual Liberation: Rebuilding Family and Friendship
Families are vital social spaces because they are the most important determining influences in almost every person’s life. From the CEO who inherited his company from his father to a trans person who is thrown out on the streets by their parents, one cannot entirely escape the web of family associations that helped form one’s personality. Nor is this purely ideological or important in terms of culture or desire: families are, as in the CEO example, one of the main conduits of wealth transfer and the consolidation of social classes. It’s not coincidence that marriage is almost always contained within social class and racial lines. Moreover, the bourgeois family structure that we have now, however embattled and decayed in its current state, is a major source of the oppression of women and LGBT people. It also traps children, who are often stuck with abusive families they are unable to escape, with many of those most vulnerable being queer and trans. Creating new forms of association is an urgent task for the revolutionary left, and the needs are urgent and present rather than simply speculative.
Those who are oppressed because of their sexual desires or for violating gender norms have been at the forefront of experimenting with new forms of living together. Necessity often dictates that this is the case, since LGBT people face harassment and, often, ostracism from religious and blood relation networks. One of the most important principles of queer associations is that they are communities of choice, not binding people to them out of obligation or kinship. We should not see these often transitory and unstable networks as full blueprints for future communities, but rather as proof that human beings can flourish in group forms that are not nuclear families.
Most vitally, the establishment of experimental living spaces has to be accompanied by a relentless struggle for the creation of a new social infrastructure that allows people to choose their own families. Collective childcare and housework, free education, and the social provision of every human need to each member of a society regardless of marriage status or any other factor, has to be achieved. Only then can human desire and sexual relations be liberated from hypocrisy and repression, with every relationship, as Alexandrea Kollontai would have it, free of “the elements of material calculation which cripple family life.”³ Passion and mutual love will replace material necessity, and the decisions over whether to have children, where to live, and how big or small the household might be, and what kind of sexual relationships occur within and outside those groups, would be left to each person’s best judgment. The law would play a smaller and decreasing role in regulating such relations, eventually withering away altogether.
But though we have to cherish these kinds of utopian visions, the main task at present is to experiment and find ways of building new structures now. Loneliness and isolation can be just as harmful as starvation and exposure in their own way, and one of the tasks of Marxists and the entire left is to pursue ways of living that will instruct us on how to foster the best human relations and to free sexual desire from its current commodified and fetishized forms. This does not mean uncritically endorsing all sexual practices or claiming them as liberating in their own right, but it does mean forming alliances with those who are equally determined to build a new family that can serve humanity much better than the one we have now.⁴
I cannot deny the power of the revolution as a sudden event, but the outcome of such a traumatic turn in history will be determined by the constitution of the forces that preexisted it. Our “mundane” years and decades of organizing and building our forces cannot be spent in pursuit of stereotyped goals and stale protest. The urgency of our work in present struggles does not excuse us from having a long-term strategy, and the support and discovery of new and progressive social forms of production, community, communication, etc. is vital for our own success.
- Robert Biel, The Entropy of Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012), 318.
- Ibid, 321.
- Alexandra Kollontai, “Communism and the Family,” Komunistka, No. 2, 1920. https://www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1920/communism-family.htm
- This whole section takes inspiration from Peter Drucker’s excellent Warped: Gay Normality and Queer Anti-Capitalism, which addresses questions of sexual liberation in much more detail.