The Majority Revolution

Urban Guerrilla, by Martin Oppenheimer. Penguin. 5s.

Modern industrial and political conditions the socialist revolution can only be successful if the vast majority of wage and salary earners consciously and actively take part in it. This is what American university lecturer Martin Oppenheimer argues here. Or, as he puts it himself:

“The liberation of mankind, as the Marxian saying has it, must be the work of mankind itself, must be majoritarian and democratic. No elite, whether violent or non-violent, can substitute.”

Urban Guerrilla is a study of insurrection and revolution. Oppenheimer notes that most revolutionary theory today is still based on the assumption “that a minority may have to carry the revolution through”. His book is a criticism of this assumption.

Peasant-based insurrections, he sees, do not and cannot lead to the establishment of a democratic, classless society since the peasants, being incapable of ruling society, must hand over power to some minority. Such insurrections bring to power a new ruling class as has been shown in China and Cuba and now also in Vietnam. Writing of thinkers like Mao, Guevara, Fanon and Debray, he says:

“Contemporary revolutionists claiming the Marxist label are not really Marxists at all. In different ways, they all represent rule by an elite, but they use Marxist language and peasant revolution (consciously or not) to justify their present or future rule. This may not be the intent . . . but it does seem to be the objective function of the contemporary peasant revolution and of its ideologies.”

In modern industrial countries an insurrection can only succeed if the vast majority of the people support it (or are at least neutral) and if the government’s machinery of suppression has broken down. In the absence of these conditions an isolated urban insurrection will be crushed with great bloodshed. This was demonstrated in Paris in 1871, in Dublin in 1916, in Shanghai in 1927, in Vienna in 1934 and in Warsaw in 1943 and 1944. The same would happen, warns Oppenheimer, to any Ghetto insurrection such as advocated by the Black Panthers. Incidentally, he is not taken in one bit by Black Power realising that its aims are in no way incompatible with the present system; the American government might easily grant self-government to the black ghettos and continue to exploit them in the same way as Britain and France do their ex-colonies. Black Power, like Home Rule, is a fraud.

Over the years it has become more and more difficult so that it is now almost impossible for a minority to defeat the government’s forces:

“It is clear that modern technology, particularly the speed of communication and travel, has made that harder than ever to accomplish, even with a general strike. The use of such devices as helicopters, light bombers, and gas and napalm, while not excluding revolutionary outbreaks, makes them much more costly than a century ago.”

Oppenheimer recalls that “as long ago as 1895 … Engels pointed out that street fighting had become obsolete in 1849”.

A possible alternative strategy for an active minority in a modern industrial country is to wage a protracted campaign of violence, terror and sabotage—or even of non-violent civil disobedience—in a bid to bring about the collapse of the machinery of government. This, suggests Oppenheimer, would probably rather lead to the rise of a fascist dictatorship and, even if successful, being the work of an active minority only, could easily lead to the rule of a new privileged class as in peasant-supported revolutions.

To succeed, concludes Oppenheimer, the revolution must be essentially non-violent and democratic involving the vast majority of the population, especially white and blue collar workers “for these are the only classes which, due to their relationship to the functioning of modern society, have both the potential for making a revolution and the capability of carrying it through on a democratic basis”. To attempt a revolution without such majority support

“is almost inevitably bound to result either in a counter-revolutionary fascist society or in a revolutionary dictatorship which destroys the goals for which the revolution was undertaken.”

This is more or less how we would put it too.

There are however two important points on the strategy for a majority revolution on which we would disagree with Oppenheimer.

We agree that a socialist party must be democratic and open and so reflect the society it wishes to achieve. We agree too that it must not get involved in conventional politics or seek to form the government. We cannot agree however that it should engage in the day-to-day struggle as well as agitate and organise for Socialism. To do so runs the great risk of becoming yet another conventional political party since engaging in the day-to-day struggle of people under capitalism necessarily involves advocating reforms. A reform programme would attract .people who want reforms rather than Socialism. In a democratic, open party such people would come to dominate it and turn it into an instrument for trying to get reforms rather than for carrying out the social revolution. Oppenheimer is aware of this as he himself mentions the fate of the German Social Democratic Party. The best way to avoid this danger is for a socialist party, while not being opposed to reform and always being on the side of the oppressed against the oppressors, not to advocate them.

Nor do we see why existing more or less democratic institutions cannot be transformed into instruments of the Socialist revolution. Given that there is effective universal suffrage, local councils and some central elected body like Parliament or Congress it seems pointless not to use them both to register majority support for the revolution and to co-ordinate the measures needed to carry it through. Why bother to set up also “institutions that would parallel existing structures of government”? No doubt as the socialist revolution approaches people will be organising in all kinds of informal bodies ready to take over and run society after the end of class rule, but as long as democratically-elected councils and parliament exist winning control of them through the ballot-box must surely be central to the strategy of any socialist party in a modern industrial country.

One further criticism. Oppenheimer does not spell out clearly enough that the socialist revolution cannot take place on a national scale but must be international and lead to the establishment of a world society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of life with production solely to satisfy human needs.

We detail these criticisms – all of which, mind you, only arise within the context of a majority revolution – because the rest of the book is so good. We unhesitatingly recommend it.

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