Our Revolutionary Movement in the Twilight of Empire

By Coco Smyth

"This epoch has gone forever. It has been followed by a new epoch, comparatively more impetuous, full of abrupt changes, catastrophes, conflicts, an epoch that no longer appears to the toiling masses as horror without end but as an end full of horrors."

-Vladimir Lenin, 1915

The recent withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the speedy return to power of the Taliban after a 20 year U.S. occupation is just the latest sign of imperial decay. The uncontested hegemony of U.S. imperialism on the world stage since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 is slowly faltering. The global, amorphous strategy of U.S. empire in the past decades, such as the “War on Terror” and the “War on Drugs” have hit a crisis point. Designed to neutralize threats to imperial hegemony through regular asymmetric interventions both domestically and globally, these types of wars were both inevitable and doomed to failure. To wage such a total war against abstract concepts provides justification for meddling in every corner of the globe, but also engenders unwinnable conflicts. Modern imperialism, based on the division and redivision of the world market and the export of finance capital, could only suffer a single ruler for so long.

The United States waged its one-sided economic and political wars for two decades before the 2008 world economic crisis set the empire, and consequently the entire international neoliberal project, into slow but steady decline. This process has not been marked by sudden sharp defeats for the U.S. imperial project, but by a whole era of decay and the stacking of discrete crises into a greater threat. U.S. imperialism depended on the blunting of political divisions domestically and abroad and their subsumption under the dictates of U.S. capital. But 2008 demonstrated the weakness of this set-up. The past decade has been marked by the explosion onto the scene of reactionary political parties and, to a smaller degree, the reemergence of a reformist left and grassroots struggles.

The triumphalism of the U.S. ruling class has eroded into paranoid cynicism as China has emerged as a viable imperial antagonist and a variety of regional powers begin to dream again of a new redivision of capital and power. The period of stasis and one-sided class war by U.S. capitalism is ending with a whimper. The “pivot to Asia,” the fundamental imperial orientation adopted by Washington under the Obama presidency, will only deepen in the coming years. This will set the stage for a set of economic, political, and eventually (likely indirect) military conflagrations between the United States and China.

While we on the revolutionary left ought to welcome the crisis in the U.S. imperial order with celebration, the new world that these events will inaugurate will not give us liberation or freedom automatically. This new period will be marked by imperial plunder, wars, revolutions, environmental catastrophes, and mass upheaval. The mask of capitalist peace and stability will slip and show to us all the true nature of this bloody system. As the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci observed over a hundred years ago in similar conditions, “The old world is dying, and the new struggles to be born. Now is the time of monsters.”

Rumblings in the Belly of the Beast

“The inability of a ruling class or major fractions to continue to rule has basically objective causes. These reflect themselves in increasingly paralyzing internal divisions among the rulers, especially around the question about how to get out of the mess visible to the naked eye. It intertwines with growing self-doubt, a loss of faith in its own future, an irrational search for peculiar culprits (“conspiracy theories”) substituting for a realistic objective analysis of social contradictions. It is this combination which precisely produces political ineptitude and counterproductive actions and reactions, if not sheer passivity.”

-Ernest Mandel, The Case for Revolution

The U.S. ruling classes’ catastrophic mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic encapsulates the contours of its own paralysis and degeneration. A class on the precipice produces the types of leaders who are committed to marching headlong off the cliff. There’s no greater example of this than Donald Trump. Rather than employ the most basic measures to contain and combat the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump regime attempted to whip up hysteria about China to pave the way for future imperial conflicts. Then, when bodies began to pile up in the United States, this government waved away all the evidence of the severity of the virus to prevent any halt to the accumulation of capital.

The conspiracism at the top in these early days informed a half-hearted and contradictory pandemic response across localities, ostensibly divided between “Democratic” and “Republican” states. But despite the Republicans peculiarly heavy reliance on whipping up base conspiracism and xenophobia, both bourgeois parties put the interests of capital over the interests of the entire populace throughout the pandemic. Policies like the rent moratorium and expanded unemployment benefits went through only after it became clear that such measures were essential to the preservation of order in an uncontrolled catastrophe.

This incompetence at the top made explosive challenges from both the left and the right inevitable. The police murder of George Floyd sparked a summer-long international struggle against racism which drew millions to the street and into deep confrontation with the apparatus of state power. The ruling class employed its conspiracist outlook to try to break down this movement from both reactionary and liberal directions. Trump and the right pushed the notion of a (non-existent) “Antifa-BLM-Democratic Party” connection to play on the fears of his base, which resulted in a wave of vigilante shootings and vehicular assaults on protestors. The police too were inspired by these reactionary delusions and came to the protests ready for violence. More perniciously, the Democratic Party feigned support for the struggle while inculcating fears of “outside agitators” and “plants” in the movement who were the cause of the militancy and destruction that accompanied the upheavals. This narrative caused real panics among those on the streets and worked to delegitimize the radical thrust of the protests in order to redirect energies into ineffectual DP led police reform efforts. The combined efforts of the two bourgeois parties met a movement which was broadly unorganized and increasingly exhausted after weeks of fighting. While this movement eventually subsided, it marked a new peak in the struggle and is a signal of what is to come.

When the first vaccines were finally developed, the U.S. ruling class considered this a deus ex machina from their catastrophic mishandling of the pandemic up until that point. However the destructive forces the ruling class let loose while feigning normality could not be kept in the bag. Despite a massive push, vaccine dissemination moved quickly at first but hit a snail’s pace when it ran up against the inculcated prejudices of the populace.

Now, with Joe Biden and the Democratic Party in power, the administration continues to try to push the vaccine as the only solution while the pandemic runs rampant across hundreds of communities. Biden continued the push to normalize the pandemic situation by encouraging a full return to in-person work at any cost, including reopening the schools, where children are now contracting the virus and spreading it across their communities. While the vaccine is a vital good which can help to stem the tide of the pandemic, the establishment has used the sheer existence of the vaccine as an excuse to cut the various pandemic measures, from enhanced unemployment benefits to mandatory masking. Without an effective universal vaccine mandate, the reactionary individualist movement to reject the vaccine cannot be overcome — and without overcoming it, the virus will continue to run rampant without additional measures. It’s an absolute insult that despite the richest imperial countries vaccine hoarding at the rest of the world’s expense, the disease continues to rip through the imperial core while millions go unvaccinated.

Both sides of the capitalist establishment have shown their commitment to profit over lives and their utter incompetence in the face of disaster. This pandemic response is just one case-study in the decline in ruling class competence, the break-up of ruling class consensus, and the decay of capitalist normality.

This is what imperial decline looks like — this is what it feels like. Paranoia, rank conspiracism, chauvinism — the psychically wounded devotees of the old order flock to delusional and destructive fantasies for fear of reality. The crises of the last years are different, even the reactionaries know it. It doesn’t take a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

Challenges to the Neoliberal Order

The primary sign of the decay of the U.S. empire on the international plane is the crackup up of the neoliberal consensus which has determined politics in most parts of the world for decades.

The period of U.S. neoliberal rule has been defined by the decay of working class resistance and institutions, the integration of all opposition, left and right, into the narrow contours of acceptable public opinion, and the destruction of most of the partial gains of previous eras of the class struggle. The scattering of workers’ organizations, the reorganization of industrial production, the destruction of welfarism, and the atomization of social life have led to immiseration for the exploited and oppressed. The U.S. neocolonial project which has extended its tentacles into all corners of the globe through institutions like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and multinational corporations (not to mention the impact of the CIA, military bases, and other military interventions) has brought all of these destructive tendencies into the neocolonial countries, more often than not with the active involvement of the national bourgeoisie and other reactionary forces within those countries. Finally, the climate catastrophe, caused by unmitigated capital accumulation, has raised the specter of “natural” catastrophes which could threaten the very basis of modern production, or at least condemn hundreds of millions of the most vulnerable people to death or unlivable lives. And the ruling class can only propose superficial reforms, since the logic of capital can provide no way out of the climate apocalypse. The system today does not rely on the active support of the masses of people, but by the destruction of even the hope of an alternative.

The immediate political beneficiary of this crisis in neoliberalism has not been the left, but the far-right. The last decade has seen the rise of authoritarian and nationalist political parties across the world. From Orban, Duterte, and Bolsonaro, to Modi and Trump, a so-called “populist” reactionary alternative has metastasized in the hollowed out institutions of the neoliberal order. These leaders have promised a spiritual regeneration of the nation through a return to mythologized traditions. In practice though, the crux of all these leaders’ strategies of rule has been to whip up xenophobia, racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression to redirect the anger of their downwardly mobile middle class bases and use it to prop up an even more rapid theft of basic rights from the whole working populace. While the alternative to neoliberalism these reactionaries have preached buttresses the position of the pre-existing elites, it also fuels the fire of disintegration international capital is struggling to contain.

The left challenge to neoliberalism in the post-2008 world has fared little better in paving a path forward. Electoral formations like Syriza, Die Linke, and Podemos in Europe in short order broke on the rocks of their own capitulations. The Pink Tide in Latin America, hailed by many in the 2000s as an existential threat to neoliberalism, broke on the rocks of capital and receded. These parties conciliated with capital under crisis and capital rewarded them with parliamentary coups and other forms of aggression when they were no longer needed. And the darlings of the Anglophone left, Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, were choke-slammed by the establishment of their parties in due course before they could even hope for power. These left and right attempts to chart a course forward have been dress rehearsals for the much deeper struggles which will rend the old world apart.

The Revolutionary Movement

While the word “socialism” is on the lips of millions in the United States and the biggest mass uprising since the 1960s rocked the country in the form of the George Floyd rebellion, revolutionary socialism has been notable by its absence. The wave of social-democratic electoralism since 2016 exploded the membership of the Democratic Socialists of America to 100,000 paper members, but a simultaneous process of conservatization has limited the impacts of this growth to the electoral arena. Even on this terrain the movement punches well below its weight.

In the meantime, the already minuscule numbers of organized revolutionaries has dwindled. A number of the relatively prominent organizations of the left have been wracked by crises of various types, and there has been an influx of radicals into the DSA without a marked impact in the politics or trajectory of the organization.

Summer 2020 made it clear the strength of the organized left is not only lagging behind objective conditions, but even the subjective militancy of the masses. The radical edge of the upheaval against racist policing elevated defunding and abolishing the police as the aim of the struggle. These demands were not just progressive — they were revolutionary — and they impacted the thinking of tens of millions, even if it did not become the majority position of the entire populace. The mass appeal of such demands — demands which can only be accomplished by a revolutionary overturn of the capitalist order — demonstrate that the yearning for a decisive break from the racist apparatus of class society resonates far beyond the minuscule reach of the formal socialist movement. The events of Summer 2020 also reveal that our movement is lagging far behind these attitudes. While millions learned the true nature of the capitalist state on the streets in the most visceral manner possible, our movement in its majority expended greater energy into the doomed campaign of Bernie Sanders for the presidency than attempting to link up the real movement with a revolutionary organizational vehicle and worldview. While that movement has receded for the time being, an examination of the last decades’ struggle against racism and police brutality demonstrates that future uprisings will take on an even more revolutionary character.

The conditions are ripe for the growth of a self-conscious revolutionary trend in the United States; but this development is entirely dependent on concerted action by the small, scattered cadre produced by the struggles of the past decades. Two primary tasks face this trend — the consolidation of these diffuse radicals into a principled organization and their collective intervention in the recomposition of a broader class struggle current in the labor and social movements.

The rolling economic and political crises that have plagued the decaying U.S. empire have prepared millions for an organized fight for their livelihoods and power. Though immiseration and crisis does not in itself produce radical struggle, the rapid oscillation between crisis and restabilization will demonstrate to all the untenability of the contemporary power structure. The only hurdle before us is determining how to connect with and channel the rising discontent and developing a strategy to employ our collective efforts against the system.

We need to understand the contradictions and conflicts which are preventing the bourgeoisie from stabilizing the system and work to highlight and intensify these antagonisms through concerted action. The types of interventions we make in the struggle must proceed from a recognition of the need to use every opportunity to push workers’ struggle as a wedge into the plans of capital.

We must reject all strategies and tactics that paper over the nature of U.S. imperial crisis or offer a new solution, even if more “progressive” than the old, to shore up the waning power of U.S. capital. The most pernicious of such strategies are the various forms of Democratic electoralism which have constituted the major activity of much of the revitalized socialist movement.

We will determine the future, or the future will be determined for us. Without revolutionary Marxists first cohering ourselves into a principled organization and then working to cohere the scattered working class into economic and political organizations, the nature of this period will be much like the last, but with even higher stakes and body counts. Intervening in every struggle, in every manifestation of discontent, to unite these scattered murmurs into a single shout against the whole apparatus of international capital -- that is the duty of revolutionaries. All work that organizes our class on an independent basis in confrontation with all the representatives of bourgeois power is justified. All work that obscures the nature of the system and its operatives, which provides false hope in the easy reform of the system, must be condemned.

The United States needs a coherent revolutionary organization today -- united around common answers to the most fundamental questions of the period. The regular crises eroding the edifice of U.S. imperialism ensure that the radicalization of the populace will widen and deepen. Thus the revolutionary left’s barrier to growth is not lack of interest or openness to our ideas, but whether we can overcome our own disorganization.

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About the author

Coco Smyth


Coco is a member of CORS.