One Step Back, Two Steps Forward: Trump and the Revolutionary Scenario

Chernikhov's Architectural Fantasy
Sketch by Iakov Chernikhov, from Architectural Fantasies, 1933

Just ten days after Trump’s inauguration, Foreign Policy published an article that openly contemplated the pros and cons of a military coup. It is a sign of the times that Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown Law professor and former advisor to the departments of both Defense and State, would pen a clickbait listicle in a reputable policy magazine suggesting that, among other options, a military overthrow of the US president might be appropriate. Indeed, despite promising “3 Ways to Get Rid of President Trump Before 2020,” the coup appears as a fourth – a buried but detailed enumeration from an establishment insider compelled, to the discomfiture of her editors, to make an extreme proposal. Aside from the strange juxtaposition of form and content (Heads of state HATE this one weird trick!), we can read in such ruminations a true crisis of ruling class strategy.

Trump won, and now capitalists, politicians, state bureaucrats, and the policy intelligentsia all have to decide how to square that fact with their particular concerns, roles, and the more general interest in ensuring the conditions for the reproduction of capitalist order. This is not, to be clear, a conspiracy of the so-called “deep state,” but a contingent and ongoing process that is always taking place within capitalism, with more or less coordination among a heterogenous ruling class. Trump’s victory was a wild card for ruling class relations, and this is forcing a less coordinated realignment of capitalist fractions, both vis-a-vis each other and the equally heterogeneous subordinate classes.

But where elites bumble and jockey, possibilities arise. That is why in the the radical uncertainty of our moment, the Left needs to strategize and organize for a revolutionary break. We cannot only be on the defensive; we need to build an organization, an autonomous political instrument, that can both defeat the Trump administration as quickly as possible and set the stage for a broader revolutionary change. Brooks proposes coups, impeachments, and constitutional ejections of the president. But this sketch of possibilities conspicuously excludes the one scenario on which we must focus: a popular revolutionary struggle to depose Trump and create the conditions for a real rupture with capitalism. If we’re not prepared with a revolutionary scenario of our own, the struggles of elites may swallow us up.

A Ruling Class Crisis

The best indicator of the internal ruling class discord is the ideological mixing and general undecidability of the Trump administration. Exoterically, the Trump campaign channelled an “anti-globalist” message of American exceptionalism, with more or less openly racist elements and concessions to petit-bourgeois and working class anger at big capital. Yet the actual administration signals a more complicated formula for ruling: white nationalist anti-globalists like Steve Bannon are serving aside globalizing neoliberal industry magnates like Rex Tillerson. Career military personnel like James Mattis are thrown in to reassure the defense establishment, while others, like Ben Carson and Mike Pence, have seemingly been included as nods to the anti-establishment and Evangelical portions of the Republican voting base. Meanwhile, mainstream Republican politicians who feared that Trump would destroy their party are now happy to follow his lead.

The resignation of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn over accusations of improper discussions with the Russian ambassador prior to Trump’s inauguration further reveals divisions both within the administration, with Bannon having demanded Flynn’s departure, and the state security apparatus more generally, as intelligence officials who were investigating Flynn differ in their trust of the White House. Meanwhile, Democratic legislators have doubled down on the tactic of leveraging Russophobia to mire the administration in investigations and unpatriotic associations. Personally, I don’t care whether our state is subject to the US ruling class or the Russian ruling class – it’s all class warfare to me. But the Democratic strategy of inching toward impeachment, or maybe just gridlock by scandal, further compels the Left to come up with a real alternative to defeat not only Trump but the entire contradictory set of ruling class interests which made him possible.

It is perhaps not unusual to have competing agendas within a presidential administration, but the divisions at the moment – along the fundamental fault lines of prevailing neoliberal and security policy consensus on the one hand, and a previously marginalized blend of rightwing ideological initiatives on the other – make it especially difficult to predict the direction of the administration. The open question of how these various sets of interests and ideologies will be articulated, how the effectivity of the US state will manifest itself, is central to the crisis.

Yet neither the crisis of the state nor the matrix of its possible resolutions are reducible to infighting within the state apparatus itself. As Nicos Poulantzas writes in State, Power, Socialism: “The establishment of the State’s policy must be seen as the result of class contradictions inscribed in the very structure of the State….” What does this mean for a Left political project that opposes both the new initiatives of the nationalist Right and the ongoing bipartisan neoliberal assault on working people?

On one level, it points us toward an analysis of different fractions of capital and their relationship to the state under Trump. To take one example of a prominent US industry: Tech capital, which was wary of the new president despite having shifted in recent years toward the Republican party, decided to oppose the executive order on Muslim immigration restrictions, with major companies like Google and Microsoft joining the suit against it. This was, however, just weeks after providing ample in-kind donations to the presidential inauguration. And until damage to his company’s brand forced him to stop participating, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, while claiming not to endorse Trump, served on the President’s business advisory council. Only a strategic articulation of (non-Uber) taxi driver union militancy, popular opposition to the Muslim migration ban, and urban consumer pressure created the conditions where he was forced to respond, further illuminating – and this is the other level of Poulantzas’ formulation – the possibility of a popular intervention amidst the uncertainty of elites.

To take another example, Wall St. financial capital could not have asked for a better ally than Clinton. Yet investors rallied upon Trump’s election, got a boon when former Goldman Sachs banker Steven T. Mnuchin became Secretary of the Treasury, and within a week had an executive order signalling White House intent to roll back banking regulations. But things are ambivalent here too: even as Trump signed that order, writers at Forbes stoked fears of a global trade war based on Trump’s endorsement of radically protectionist measures, which have been advocated by both Bannon and top aide Stephen Miller. Financial capital by its nature can only exist on the basis of uncertainty and volatility, but one wonders if the weight of the possible changes in the offing – import tariffs, military conflict in East Asia, deportation of a significant portion of the US workforce – are enough of a threat to neoliberal consensus to cause panic for that industry.

Other capitalists are likewise trying to figure out what to do: Airlines hope to benefit from a combination of enforced free trade policies in the Middle East and Trump’s commitment to an infrastructure project couched in terms of economic nationalism. Retailers are concerned about the idea (which the White House briefly endorsed, then walked back) of a 20% tax on all US imports. What is striking here, in addition to the possibility of real antagonistic positions among capitalists, is the speed with which all the players must recalibrate and try to coordinate their stances, even within industries. All this is taking place in an unusually public way, with little indication about what the executive and legislature will actually decide, whom the president will demonize on Twitter, and how the popular classes will react at any given moment.

Their “Leninism”…

Within this rapidly changing scenario, it may be that the most politically savvy and committed players will rule the day. Thus, we should pay particular attention to Steve Bannon and those he represents in the White House. Bannon has said that he is a Leninist; he is trolling with the citation, but it is clear that he is nonetheless dedicated to deeply altering the face of the US state and society, and willing to throw himself completely into the project of doing so.

The evident early force of Bannon’s ideology is the true novum at the level of presidency itself. The fact that his own agenda is indebted to an anti-neoconservative and anti-Republican right-wing milieu, forged through neither state nor party bureaucracy, suggests that his success has the possibility to re-shape the wagers of various other players. And indeed, if we can characterize the ruling class offensive that has shaped the rules in the US and around the globe at least since the 1970s as neoliberalism, then Bannon’s stated opposition to anything of the sort is a disruption worth noting.

Of course, Bannon is only one among many in the White House, and the stability of his position will depend on the course of events. There is no reason to believe he is secretly pulling Trump’s strings. But the urgency at the heart of Bannon’s own view of history, which posits that there is only a short window for radical change between 80 year cycles of political stability, suggests that he will play the political game hard and fast. As Richard Seymour notes, “This makes Bannon, not a master manipulator, but a dangerous mystic and a gambler.” His view of civilizational crisis and predictions of an inevitable and violent global clash means that the effort to reshape the US will also involve taking risks at the world level. How his views may find common ground with more traditionally hawkish components of the security state apparatus remains to be seen.

In the midst of an ambiguous realignment of state and capital, we must counter the initiative of the Right with a true Leninism of our own.

…and Ours

The setting of uncertainty and high stakes competition is an opening for the amplified power of the Left if we can, in distinction from our class adversaries, act decisively and collectively. For this reason, anti-capitalists must put the questions of organization and strategy at the forefront of our plans. I therefore speak of Leninism in a rather particular sense: as Lars Lih argues in his biography Lenin, the core of Lenin’s project was neither a list of tactics like selling newspapers, nor even a particular organizational form. Lenin’s great achievement was to have envisioned a revolutionary scenario and then to have asked: What is to be done, given our concrete situation, in order to make that scenario a reality? Every subsequent decision, analysis, and polemic was then elaborated in the service of that goal. His detailed portraits of the professional revolutionary organization were simply an attempt to capture the most effective practices of Russian organizers who shared his vision.

In another article, reviewing the infamous clashes of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in the run up to October 1917, Lih concludes:

Each side was a compound of error and insight. But in the case of the Mensheviks, this combination resulted in paralysis. In the case of the Bolsheviks, the combination led them to be up and doing. Just for this reason, the future, for good or ill, belonged to the Bolsheviks.

This did not mean engaging in blind action, nor clinging to a static view of their task; for Lenin’s Bolshevism, everything depended on a combination of political principles, historical analysis, strategic possibility, and conjunctural actuality. If Lih’s interpretation tends toward voluntarism, it nonetheless serves as a reminder of exactly the kind of principled, visionary action that can prevent the Left from drowning in the tide of contradictory events with no mooring to the future we’d like to see.

To speak of simply repeating last century’s greatest revolutionary moment is out of the question, but there is a parallel: Russian Social Democrats like Lenin faced the problem of relating their long-term goal of building communism to the shorter term goal of overthrowing an especially repressive state. The contingent structure of the organization appropriate to the fin-de-siècle Russian context is less important than the idea that organization, even beginning with small, scattered groups of activists, would itself make it possible to mobilize the entirety of the oppressed classes in a coordinated movement – first against Tsarism, and then for communism. Struggles against oppression and for political freedom were central to the first stage of this process, and as it turned out they greatly accelerated the second. Today in the US, I venture, we can think of an anti-capitalist revolutionary scenario in a similar vein. First, to build a mass, participatory movement that can end the Trump administration on our own terms, and then to go “to the end,” as Lenin might say, and create the conditions so that the state and ruling classes cannot subject us to such a project again – conditions which amount to none other than the end of capitalism.

On the other hand, it is possible to mark the immense distance between Russia 1917 and USA 2017 by suggesting a flexible concept of organization of more recent vintage: what Marta Harnecker calls a political instrument. This concept – whose name is drawn from the Bolivian experience of rebellion and insurgency that began in the 1990s to reject US intervention and neoliberalism and ended up building a new party that, whatever its shortcomings, radically reconfigured Bolivian politics – speaks to an essential need of our moment. As the term implies, the notion of political organization invoked here is not that of a homogenous sect of militants acting upon the masses (though this would be a misleading caricature of what Lenin theorized), but would rather take into account a larger ecosystem of movements and struggles. The organization is an instrument because its very existence depends on a broader movement.

Just in the first few weeks of Trump’s presidency, we see that such a broader movement is possible. On Inauguration Day, crowds took to the street for militant action to refuse normalcy, followed on J21 by a Women’s March which brought out millions, many of whom had never been to a protest in their lives. Since then, there is no sign of slowing down. Students and community members in Berkeley shut down alt-right shitbox Milo Yiannapoulous. Thousands filled up airports (!) in a nearly instant reaction to Trump’s Muslim ban, while NYC Taxi Drivers went on strike, and Yemeni bodega owners across New York closed shop in dismay. Protesters in LA shut down the 101 in response to ICE immigration raids, and on Feb 16, thousands of immigrant workers around the country skipped their shifts as part of a ‘Day Without an Immigrant.”  Countless other more or less disruptive actions continue daily across the country, from prisons to high schools. Clearly, the energy and willingness for a large-scale anti-Trump movement is there.

But Harnecker points out that mass revolt and disruption is insufficient: “To convert insurrections into revolutions, a political instrument capable of overcoming the dispersion and fragmentation of the exploited and the oppressed is required.” The question, then, is one of forging unity in the name of greater collective power. The point of a political instrument is to permit various social organizations to remain rooted in distinct communities or neighborhoods, oriented toward specific issues, or tied to various grassroots campaigns, while laying a basis for coordination and interaction between these projects. In Harnecker’s words, such an instrument is “to be at the service of popular movements, not to displace them.”

The task of forging of a political instrument also carries with it one other requirement: autonomy. If a popular movement is to actualize the hidden scenario of a revolution against Trumpism, no doubt that establishment actors – components of the existing capitalist state – will attempt to take credit and offer self-serving interpretations of events. Popular power will be divested from its constituent basis, and real revolutionary possibilities might easily be reduced to the removal of one man who, in the end, is just a symptom of the many contradictions facing capitalism today.

Even in relation to the stricter goal of removing or hindering Trump, there is little advantage to be gained from attaching the popular movement to the Democratic Party. That party’s reconstruction is its own task, and already involves considerable struggles with a deeply entrenched stratum of leadership. The prize in that fight has been revealed to be a feeble and ineffective machine. A recent analysis by Mike Davis suggests that Republicans have simply outwitted Democrats in shaping the electoral map through the use of state apparatuses, with sharp long-term consequences for any possibility of Democratic power at any level of government. In this sense, the Democrats are the loser of game for which they have helped draft the rules by closing off political space for more than a century.  Their loss may be our gain; the greatest success of the original “political instrument,” Bolivia’s Movimiento al Socialismo, came only once all sectors of the political elite had been thoroughly discredited by five years of popular insurrection.

This isn’t a call against any coordination with Democrats, but it is a call for political independence that may allow novelty to emerge. The political field, despite everything, remains strangely open; the shock of Trump’s election should remind us not to discount the unexpected. To revitalize or rejuvenate the Democratic Party is a project so large that – if it is even possible – it stands as an utterly distinct goal from the kind of urgent mobilization we need to both defeat Trump and prevent a mere regression to the status quo ante. Strategy does not preclude a vote for reformists in some future scenario, but at the moment we have a different choice: do we exert our energies building back up an anemic party which has never been an institution of or by the working class, and whose destruction may in turn provide the space for political alternative, or do we get to work building an independent political instrument that may hold the possibility of a popular alternative to elite posturing?

Open questions abound: What will a political instrument look like? How might it best relate to various kinds of social organizations, workplace struggles, communities? How will we eventually forge various local links together into a broader organization? Yet in a moment when it is imperative to take the initiative, such openness should not prevent us from starting. In some places, such organized political groups already exist, and in others they stand to be built. In some the primary contradictions and struggles will be obvious, in others obscured. But the tasks, both practical and theoretical, of building such a revolutionary tool will only become obvious if we make an attempt. Focusing on key dates like March 8 and May 1 will be essential, but an anti-Trump movement can’t be reduced to days of action – still less if we want to turn the struggle among capitalists into a struggle between classes.

So at the risk of being causally programmatic: seek out other anti-capitalists in the movement, get together, and see whether you have some shared principles. If you do, start grappling with the many unanswered questions, keep joining actions and other organizations of the resistance, and be open to unending dialogue both within the nascent political organizations and in every other anti-Trump organizing space – though not at the cost of making decisions. We don’t need all our answers in advance, but we do need to act. Even the near future is a great unknown, but if, as Lih says of the Russian revolutionaries, we’re “up and doing,” it will belong to us.

Author of the article

is a member of the Viewpoint editorial collective and a PhD candidate in the History of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz.