Riots don’t change systems: There’s no shortcut to organizing

You say you want a revolution? There are no “lessons” for anyone on the Left to draw from the January 6 insurrection on the Capitol building in Washington.

If we were to set aside for a moment the fascistic nature of the mob, egged by on former President Donald Trump and his minions (which I am not suggesting we actually do), there is nothing to be taken in the abstract. Apparently there are some folks who, while certainly not condoning the political outlook of the insurrectionists, believe the example set might provide something of a template for how to achieve very different goals.

Even before we get to what should be an obvious observation — the Trumpite mob was enabled by some Capitol Police officers and law enforcement agencies largely share the insurrectionists’ politics while not hesitating to crack down violently on Left demonstrations, no matter how peaceful — governments and economic systems are not overturned by mobs storming the headquarters of the government. Any change to a better world by Left-led social movements can’t succeed without having a large majority of the population behind them with a significant number willing to act on the desire for systemic change in well thought out moves and not simply be passive supporters. There is no shortcut to organizing.

Hugo Chávez swearing in as Venezuela president in 2013 (photo by AVN, Prensa Presidencial/Venezuelanalysis)

As comforting as it may be to believe that any form of economic democracy, whether we call that socialism or something else, can simply be voted in, that path isn’t available. History has amply demonstrated that peaceful roads will meet with massive counter-attacks, from the Paris Commune in 1870 through Salvador Allende’s democratic election in 1970 and right up to today with the Bolivarian Revolution. That, on the other hand, doesn’t mean we are condemned to wringing our hands in frustration and doing nothing as capitalism continues to immiserate more people and destroy the environment.

Everything of human creation has a lifespan and everything of human creation can be changed or removed by human hand. Slavery, feudalism and other systems of the past were not natural, they were not ordained — they were products of human imagination. Capitalism is not the end of history. It is nothing more than one more system of repression, one more system of organization. It is no more permanent than slavery, feudalism or any other system of the past. If this were not so, there would not be so much frenetic activity put into convincing us that “there is no alternative.”

A serious movement needs to use a wide range of tactics and approaches wielded by cohesive organizations bringing together movements in broad alliances that provide scope for people with specific issues and oppressions to advance their goals simultaneously with rooting these in larger understandings of their structural causes and the systemic crises that must be tackled. The days of telling people that you need to “wait your turn” and, anyway, “your oppression will be solved once we have a revolution” need to be definitively over. On the other hand, splintering into a myriad of groups working only on specific issues in isolation from one another is a guarantee of ineffectiveness in terms of tackling the overall systemic problems that underlie so much of what we fight. 

Masses in motion in 1917

It’s a myth that the October Revolution in 1917 Russia was the work of a small conspiratorial clique that violently took power. A contingent of Bolsheviks walked into the Winter Palace, then moved through hallways until they found the room where the remnants of the Provisional Government were meeting and simply arrested them. Hardly a shot was fired in St. Petersburg (then known as Petrograd).

How could it have been that simple? Because the entire country was in motion and support for the deposed government had evaporated. The urban masses in St. Petersburg and Moscow, and in other cities, had swung behind the Bolsheviks. In the countryside, where political support remained with the Social Revolutionaries, there was tacit support for the revolution — peasants had actually defied the Right Social Revolutionary leadership (the SRs having just split into two) by taking land from landlords and the aristocracy and redistributing it among themselves, actions strongly supported by the Bolsheviks and the Left Social Revolutionaries, who would soon join the Bolsheviks in a coalition government.

Meeting at the Putilov Factory (1917)

All this could have happened because Bolshevik, Left SR and Interdistrict Organization agitation had turned the Russian Army, which led to the disarming of the police, who melted away. Russian soldiers and sailors took control of their units, refusing to follow orders by their officers, and even disarming them, putting control of the army and navy in socialist hands. This was most clearly demonstrated when the army chief, Lavr Kornilov, attempted a coup against the Provisional Government. Train tracks were torn up to block military movement into St. Petersburg, and Aleksander Kerensky, leader of the Provisional Government, had to call on Bolshevik militants to defend the capital. Enormous work over years, in extremely repressive conditions, was behind all this.

And what of the February Revolution that preceded the October Revolution? 

Neither the Bolsheviks or any other party played a direct role in the February revolution that toppled the tsar, for leaders of those organizations were at the time in exile abroad or in Siberia, or in jail. Nonetheless the tireless work of activists laid the groundwork. The Bolsheviks were a minority even among the active workers of Russia’s cities then, but later in the year, their candidates steadily gained majorities in all the working class organizations — factory committees, unions and soviets. The slogan of “peace, bread, land” resonated powerfully.

On one particular day, tens of thousands of women textile workers walked out, then went to the metal factories and asked the men working there to join them. They did, the strike spread and within two days a general strike took hold. In another five days, the tsarist régime was finished — one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships brought to an end. Why that one day? Why that one strike among many that had broken out in recent weeks and over years? We can never know with certainty. The most we can say is that on that particular day, Russians finally had enough. This was an amazing feat, overthrowing an autocratic régime that had endured for centuries. Here, too, police considerations are part of the equation — some of the troops sent by the tsar to put down the rebellion refused to fire or even took the side of the people.

Yet there was no spontaneity at work. Russia’s socialists had tirelessly laid the groundwork, and although the tsar’s secret police had decimated their ranks and so many had paid with exile, banishment, hard labor, jail and execution, the ideas could not be stamped out. The talks of the socialist agitators, the words of the socialist newspapers, pamphlets and fliers, resonated with the experiences of Russians — not only in the cities, but in the countryside and in the army and navy. It was this practical work, carried out over many years, that provided the people of Russia with the tools necessary to understand, and then change, their conditions. Organizing.

Masses in motion in 1979

One more example. The Sandinistas took power in 1979 at the head of a broad coalition encompassing wide sections of Nicaraguan society, despite the efforts of Nicaragua’s corporate elite — industrialists and agricultural exporters — who wanted Somoza removed but retain his extremely repressive system. The United States government, under Jimmy Carter, was working toward the same goal, having decided that Somoza had become too much of a liability. Therefore, Sandinistas argued, the task was to build its own multi-class coalition, going beyond peasants and blue-collar workers to include other social groups, including church groups and social christians.

Although Sandinistas developed an insurrectionist strategy in an underdeveloped country of the Global South, their strategy has broad applications for the developed countries of the Global North, for similar social complexities and differentiations exist there. While no theory can be transplanted whole to another place or time, organizers explicitly acknowledged, and acted upon, the fact that workers are not only blue-collar factory employees, but are also white-collar and other types of employees in a variety of settings, in offices and service positions, among others. Any revolution that seriously attempts to transcend capitalism, which means eliminating the immense power of the capitalist elite, has to include all these varieties of working people, those regularly employed and those precarious, if it is to succeed in the 21st century. 

Strikes alone would not be enough. In September 1978, Sandinista forces attacked the National Guard in several cities, including León, sparking uprisings in each of them. Although the Sandinistas were forced to retreat, thousands left with them in long columns, demonstrating that they would not abandon the people who supported them and the cause of building a better world. 

On June 4, 1979, Sandinista calls for an “insurrectional general strike” shut down the country. Coordinated attacks began in a series of cities, isolating units of the National Guard and forcing the Guard to stretch its forces too thin. By July 16, almost every major city in Nicaragua was in insurgent hands and the régime was about to topple. The U.S. government this day was still trying to negotiate a deal to block the Sandinistas from assuming power with the Roman Catholic archbishop of Managua, various members of the anti-Somoza corporate elite and the Junta of National Reconstruction — this last maneuver was an effort to get the Junta, the government in waiting that had recently been formed, to add a member of the National Guard and a member of Somoza’s Liberal Party. With Nicaraguans solidly behind them, the Sandinista could easily say no to the U.S. maneuvers.

On July 17, dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle fled the country after years of waging war on his country’s people and muscling in on so many businesses that even sizable numbers of Nicaragua’s bourgeoisie wanted him gone. Years of tireless organizing by Sandinista militants, often at the risk of their lives, led to that day. Two days later, on July 19, the Sandinistas marched triumphantly into Managua, the capital, having already captured control of much of the country in the late stages of the insurrection.

This success was not the product of a random mob attacking a government building, but patiently building a mass movement that became strong enough to topple a deeply corrupt, extraordinarily brutal dictatorship.

A disorganized group of people, even if they had the goal of bringing into being a better world that we would agree with, has no chance of success. None. Trying to create an alternate history or counter-factual by substituting good people for the fascists acting out an absurd fantasy is a sterile exercise, and one undertaken in an absence of historical knowledge. It would be a service to humanity and the health of the Earth if capitalism and the governments upholding it through violence were swept into the dustbin of history. But that will take monumental organization, getting a healthy majority to back the vision of a better world, linking hands across borders and solidarity across movements. That is as far removed as can be from a mob egged on by an aspirant fascist.

11 comments on “Riots don’t change systems: There’s no shortcut to organizing

  1. […] Riots don’t change systems: There’s no shortcut to organizing — Systemic Disorder […]

  2. One reason we see little organizing and more demagoguery is that our relationships have become star-shaped. Relationships are sparse. Instead of a network of connections with other people that we depend on, for example co-workers, local businesses and traders, extended family, each of us is individually connected to a hierarchical graph. Or a few. We have “accounts” with work, tech platforms, insurers, banks, etc. Our “standing” is personal and unconnected with each other. That is what makes people scared and organizing difficult.

    • Stable communities make for more cohesive communities. That so many people can’t afford obscenely high rents and are forced to move frequently or work long hours that exhaust them, or people having to relocate for employment reasons because so many jobs are being sent away, is a hinderance to organizing, factors also making our lives more difficult.

  3. […] Pete Dolack Writer, Dandelion Salad Systemic Disorder, Feb. 3, 2021 February 4, […]

  4. Shadowman says:

    Another great article Pete. Though “organizing” requires praxis (merging of theory and action) to succeed. Action based on bogus/dubious/compromised theory dead-ends in the Alinsky method (Staughton Lynd wrote an excellent critique of the Alinsky method a few years back: Anyway, Jodi Dean’s “Crowds and Party” is a full-length book making the same points you make here; she draws out what separates disorganized crowds/mobs from organized political parties and why that matters. She highlights how much damage anarchist thinking has done in terms of demoralizing and demobilizing the Left over the last half century or so.

    Or, as Frantz Fanon wrote in “The Wretched of the Earth,” “the success of the struggle presupposes clear objectives, a definite methodology and above all the need for the mass of the people to realize that their unorganized efforts can only be a temporary dynamic.”

    • Very well said, Shadowman, and without a doubt praxis is essential. Theory without practice is armchair pontificating and practice without theory is running around in circles.

      I’ll also add my recommendations for Crowds and Party and The Wretched of the Earth. I have reviewed Crowds and Party; review at this link.

  5. tubularsock says:

    Well Pete, Tubularsock has perfected “armchair pontificating “ as a lifestyle. It may be
    “running around in circles” from a fixed point which saves wear and tear on one’s boot treads.

    Excellent post!

  6. Calgacus says:

    “As comforting as it may be to believe that any form of economic democracy, whether we call that socialism or something else, can simply be voted in, that path isn’t available. History has amply demonstrated that peaceful roads will meet with massive counter-attacks, from the Paris Commune in 1870 through Salvador Allende’s democratic election in 1970 and right up to today with the Bolivarian Revolution”

    No, history doesn’t demonstrate that at all. For violence is the second and weaker weapon. That path IS available. The stronger weapon is the real problem. Steve Biko explained, in words that can never be repeated enough: “The most potent weapon in the hands of an oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” Had he not been murdered, Biko could have led South Africa to become a shining example for the rest of the world. Those old racists were no dummies. They knew who the real brain was on the other side.

    Francois Mitterrand was voted in in France. Because he was economically illiterate and/or a traitor, he aborted his Keynesian/socialist economic program – while it was succeeding splendidly.

    Alex Tsipras was voted in. As he won a referendum with the nation behind him, as his enemies who had shot their wad and were conceding defeat to him – he surrendered, because he is also an economically illiterate / insane / traitor.

    Venezuela wrecked its own economy caused hyperinflation- by its own economic illiteracy – an insane obsession with using welfare-for-the-rich fixed exchange rates – that delivered pennies to the poor, dollars to the rich. This was before they were put under sanctions.

    Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff caved to a completely fabricated foreign debt crisis. She showed weakness and then was deposed. Brazil need not borrow in foreign currencies at all – but it had far more dollars in its Central Bank than it owed then. Solution – pay off the debt with the money it had. Even just threaten to pay off the debt! Crisis over. Duh. The stupidity was so spectacular that people cannot believe that any country, any person could act that stupidly. It wins some sort of prize, which there is a lot of competition for.

    The list goes on and on, and is sadly supported by a completely insane, suicidal major strand of Marxist “theory”. It’s easier to mention the few leaders who were NOT illiterate. Who were pressured by pure bullshit and called bullshit: “bullshit”. FDR, Bruno Kreisky. In completely forgotten episodes.

    Don’t know of any other clear examples. Except for China in the past decades – that an endless parade of lunatics have been saying was on the verge of a crisis, was subject to some completely imaginary power of international finance. No, the Chinese know a paper tiger when they see one.

    • The words of Steve Biko are entirely correct, then and now. As I frequently write, “there is no alternative” possesses its potency because so many believe it. When enough people believe capitalism is finished and must be replaced with something better, it will happen. Peacefully, I and most everybody hopes.

      But whatever I or you might hope, the level of violence, or even if there is violence involved, is always in the hands of the repressive régime being challenged, not the movements challenging it. Why was there a “velvet revolution” in Czechoslovakia? Because the communists decided they were finished, and handed over power. It was peaceful not because of Civic Forum and Public Against Violence, which they were, but because the outgoing régime decided to negotiate a peaceful exit. No capitalist government has ever acted in such a way.

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