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.