The question of whether a revolt can turn into a revolution in the United States is, of course, provocative, but nevertheless, the recent history of civil protests in the USA makes this possibility quite plausible, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov. The publication of this article continues online collaboration between Valdai Club as part of its Think Tank project and the Argentine Council for International Relations (CARI).
The racial protests in the United States that erupted after the death of George Floyd in police custody have been the focus of public attention around the world. They have already generated a wave of similar protests in many other countries, and their main slogan, “Black Lives Matter,” has become a powerful symbol, aimed at resolving racial problems in the modern world. The only question is whether these protests turn out to be a one-off phenomenon, vivid, but quickly disappearing. Incidentally, previously there were similar racial protests in Ferguson. It was then that the slogan “Black Lives Matter” appeared for the first time, and the President of the United States was not Trump, but African-American Barack Obama. But despite the president being black, the protests in Ferguson did not lead to any systemic changes. Therefore, the logical question is whether the same thing could be repeated with these protests. Whatever the case may be, they could still have a serious transformational impact on the American political system and behavioural practices.
One of the key issues of social dynamics in the US is the search for patterns and mechanisms in which it is possible to develop a momentary spontaneous protest (a rebellion, if you like) into something more long-term, transforming society. The question of whether a revolt can turn into a revolution in the USA is, of course, provocative, but nevertheless, the recent history of civil protests in the USA makes this possibility quite plausible.
The point here is not to repeat the banal notion that a revolution in the USA is impossible simply because there is no American embassy there. They say that US embassies are behind all revolutions and the overthrow of regimes around the world. We agree that this is only a vulgar conspiracy cliché, although quite unexpectedly such a view of things has recently received direct confirmation from American insiders. We have already analysed the new book by John Bolton on the Valdai Club website and concluded that it may be distinguished from many memoirs by its cynical directness. So, it’s enough to read the chapter from the book devoted to Venezuela, and it will become absolutely clear that the lion’s share of the planning and implementation of the attempt to overthrow the Maduro regime in Venezuela was carried out by the United States. Directly and explicitly. Henry Kissinger could write a similar chapter on the role of the United States in overthrowing the Allende regime in Chile and bringing Pinochet to power. But he turned out to be less cynical than Bolton.
But that’s not the point. The traditional theory of revolution (and getting an education in a Marxist country gives one a good head start in understanding this matter) consisted of the following. On the one hand, the famous triad of Lenin on revolutions highlighted the fact that the upper classes can no longer govern in the old way, the lower classes do not want to live in the old way, and the oppression and exploitation of the masses intensifies. How do these three principles apply to America now? The second one, that the lower classes do not want to live in the old way, is obviously true. Evidence of this is not only to be found in current events, but also reflected in other protests in the United States held over last decade, both the Ferguson riots, which resemble the recent ones, and the anti-elitist Occupy Wall Street protests, which on the surface seem completely different. Two other observations can be made regarding today’s USA, which are fairly easy to recognise. Firstly, a crisis in governance is not occurring, despite the police no longer being able to fulfil their functions quickly, which is very significant. Secondly, there’s not been an increase in oppression, despite the murder of Floyd and the unresolved racial problem.
Furthermore, in order for a protest (or a revolutionary situation, as you wish) to develop into a revolution (or at least into a sharp transformation of the political regime), according to the classical theory of revolution, the following conditions are necessary. Lenin, let’s return to him again, spoke of the need for an avant-garde revolutionary party. Translating this into today’s parlance, we are talking about leadership, even in the form of a network. Does it exist in the current American protests? More likely no than yes. At least for now. Another important aspect is the existence of a plan of action, both in terms of goals, and in terms of tactics. There doesn’t seem to be one. The call for police reform through “defunding” doesn’t seem to reflect popular public demand. There have been requests for “positive discrimination” favouring blacks in Hollywood and in sports, and preferential hiring practices with respect to managerial positions, presumably. Although, as the experience of South Africa showed during the breakdown of the apartheid regime, so-called positive discrimination in employment can have a serious transformative effect on society.
The next moment in the theory of revolution is connected with the phrase, attributed to Marx and Engels, that the proletariat has nothing to lose but its chains. On the one hand, this means the need for sacrifice and willingness of broad social groups to fight. On the other hand, it raises the problem of revolutionary violence. According to classical Marxism, violence is an integral part of the revolution (and is legitimised by it, in fact). This is easily achieved. If you translate the class struggle terms into today’s racial realities, then there is a willingness to fight, and the absence of a barrier to revolutionary or protest violence in the US black community. Keep in mind the experience of the Black Panthers or the Detroit riots of the late 1960s, for example.
Here, the difference between racial protests in the USA and the protests of the “highbrow” white intellectuals who staged the Occupy Wall Street protest about a decade ago is very significant. In that case, everything was done by the book; the protest fully reflected the left’s ideology and values. World-famous left-wing progressive philosophers took an active part, both in the events themselves and in their direct interpretation. The slogan “The marriage between democracy and capitalism is over”, put forward by Slavoj Žižek, demonstrates this well. But the majority of the Occupy Wall Street protesters lacked the necessary motivation, as they all had something to lose. At the very least, as self-appointed representatives of all but society’s top one percent, they had more than chains.
From this contrast, the recipe suggests that in order to achieve systemic success, these two types of protest may be combined in the realities of modern America. A racial rebellion may be combined with a highbrow intellectual programme. And in part, we see how this is already beginning to happen. So far, it is clear that among left-liberal intellectuals, this has been directly (and cynically) subordinated as a solution of their primary tactical task: to prevent President Trump from being re-elected. In achieving this, any means are justified. But will this emerging alliance continue after the presidential election, especially if Trump loses and the goal of the left liberals is achieved? This is precisely one of the main questions, with respect to the modern social dynamics of the United States.
But, however, in one respect, the current American protests have already been successful. We can speak, if you like, about the victory of the semantic revolution. The symbolism of whites kneeling before blacks, which marks a quick semiotic transition from dominance to recognition of one’s own humility and deserved humiliation, seems to remain in America’s behavioural memory for a long time. Michel Foucault, with his emphasis on rejecting semiotic dominance, would have been pleased (though it’s not known how he’d feel about kneeling down). The destruction of old monuments to white heroes and the deletion of the names of white heroes from the names of university centres (left liberal, as a rule) also fit into the same semantic revolution of rejection of dominance. In the history of white communities there is a fairly recent example of this quick semantic breakdown and a semiotic (and later real) transition from domination to submission. This is the experience of South Africa and Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. Will this repeat itself in the United States? Time will tell.