In yesterday’s post (“What is direct action?” 5/9/2016), I described Mitchel Cohen’s concept of revolutionary transformation through the formation of direct action communities of resistance, which Mitchel formulates in his 2013 book, What is Direct Action? Reframing Revolutionary Strategy in Light of Occupy Wall Street. I continue today with reflection on Mitchel’s analysis of revolutionary strategies in the United States.
Mitchel maintains that the New Left of the 1960s indicted the system, rather than trying to reform it. In contrast, he notes, the official Left today is reformist. Composed of unions, churches, liberals, mainstream environmental groups, academic Marxists and solidarity groups, it seeks to pressure the government to make changes, through protests and the issuing of demands as well as lobbying Congress. Many of the groups of the official Left use a strategy that Mitchel calls “lowest-common-denominator coalition-building.” This involves framing issues in a form that intends to maximize popular support, using appeals based in underlying cultural assumptions that are central to the maintenance of the system. Examples include: the advocacy of free health care, but for legal residents, not illegal aliens; the opposition to wars not on the basis of their immorality, but on the grounds that the money spent could be used for jobs in the United States; and the anti-war slogan “Support our Troops, Not the War!” The reformist approach of the official Left accepts the legitimacy of those in power and the underlying assumptions of the system; it is lacking in vision and imagination (Cohen 2013: 41, 218-24).
Mitchel maintains that many of the organizations of the official Left follow a vanguard party model, in which the leaders of the organizations engage in a strategy of consciousness-raising, seeking to overcome false consciousness among the people. Mitchel, however, rejects the concept of false consciousness. He maintains that the people are isolated, impotent and afraid; but they are not lacking in political information. Rather than analytical presentations of Truth, the Left should establish direct action projects, enabling the people to overcome isolation, impotence and fear (Cohen 2013: 174, 179-80, 189, 217, 307, 341).
In rejecting the concept of false consciousness, Mitchel apparently does not see the limited understanding of the people of the United States, a phenomenon that is a result of patterns that have been in place for more than a century: ideological distortions by a corporate-controlled media; fragmentation in higher education, limiting the possibility for a global and integral view of human history; the creation of a consumer society, giving emphasis to the possession of things rather than the quest for understanding; and superficial and ethnocentric discourses by the political representatives of the elite. The limited popular consciousness in the United States is clearly and painfully evident from the vantage point of Cuba, Latin America and the Third World, and it pertains even to the US Left. It is a phenomenon that has victimized all of us intellectuals and activists in the United States, to a greater or lesser degree, without exception.
What can be done to overcome the limited historical, social and global consciousness of the people of the United States? If we study the popular revolutions of the world, we see that the limited understanding of the people, rooted in established structures, was a general problem. The people possess common sense intelligence and a sense of right and wrong; but most people think concretely, and they only partially understand their situation, provoking feelings of powerlessness. In triumphant revolutions, the obstacle was overcome through a process of popular education forged by charismatic leaders and vanguard parties. The common sense intelligence of the people enabled them to discern charismatic leaders and vanguard parties, who possessed the personal qualities that enabled them to see through the ideological distortions and lead the people to a revolutionary theory and practice.
So the question emerges, how can we apply these lessons to the United States? How can we effectively educate our people, who have been ideologically manipulated and mis-educated? Believing that the people are not lacking in knowledge or understanding, Mitchel does not adequately address this question. But it is a question that we must address.
Mitchel maintains that raising consciousness about oppression, without involving the people in direct action projects, leads to an increase in despair and a feeling of powerlessness among the people. In contrast, involving people in direct action projects provides people with the means “to act collectively to empower themselves over the conditions of their lives” (Cohen 2013: 304, 325, 339-42; italics in original).
I agree with Mitchel that describing structures of oppression without offering a practical road to liberation can lead to an increased sense of powerlessness. But it seems to me that Mitchel makes the opposite error of denying the importance of analysis, which is necessary for understanding structures of domination and the possibilities for liberation.
In my career as a college teacher, I found that my most successful efforts in popular education were based on a combination of intellectual work and practical experiences. So I turn to such a synthetic model in imagining a vanguard party that is effective in involving people, transforming people, and creating the political conditions that would make possible a societal transformation from capitalism to socialism in the United States.
An effective vanguard political party would be dedicated to popular education, and it would be based on significant intellectual work, developing pamphlets for popular education, which would describe human history, the historic and present structures of domination and exploitation, and the historic and present struggles for personal and national liberation. At the same time, it would involve the people in a variety of activities. Some of these activities would include involvement in popular education at the local level. But they also would involve the kinds of direct action activities that Mitchel advocates. Indeed, at the local chapters of the vanguard party, the fostering of direct action strategies and direct action communities of resistance would be one of their most important activities. Participation in such a vanguard political party that combines theory and practice in a variety of forms would empower the people, both subjectively and objectively.
If history is our guide, we can see that if the people are to free themselves, they must be led. The people possess common-sense intelligence and a thirst for liberation and social justice, but they naturally are divided and confused. They must be led to that unity of action that is necessary for societal transformation, and this is the role of the vanguard party. A vanguard party can include direct action strategies and the fostering of direct action communities of resistance.
For further posts on this theme, see “A socialist revolution in the USA” 2/1/2016; “Lessons of socialism for the USA” 1/18/2016; “Popular democratic socialist revolution” 1/15/2016; and “Presidential primaries in USA” 8/25/2015. They can be found in the category Revolution.
Cohen, Mitchel, et.al. 2013. What is Direct Action? Reframing Revolutionary Strategy in Light of Occupy Wall Street. Brooklyn: Red Balloon Collective Publications.
Key words: vanguard, Left, false consciousness, consciousness raising, revolution, socialism