"But with the development of industry, the proletariat not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more. … Thereupon, the workers begin to form combinations (Trades' Unions) against the bourgeois; they club together in order to keep up the rate of wages; they found permanent associations in order to make provision beforehand for these occasional revolts. Here and there, the contest breaks out into riots.
"Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers." (The Communist Manifesto)How old is the communist/socialist movement? I can't answer that with any precision. For my purposes, let's say it's 168 years old, and started in 1848 with the publication of the Communist Manifesto. That's an arbitrary and questionable answer. Still, I hope you'll indulge me: the Manifesto has been translated to at least 80 languages, and is considered a very influential work. It often is the first -- in many cases, doubtless the only -- Marxist text readers encounter.
I can't say, either, in how many of the 195 countries currently existing there are -- or at least were -- active communist parties. Once upon a time, they were pretty common; my guess is their number has dwindled. How much, again, I can't say.
However if we decided to write a history of the communist movement, devoting each country one paragraph for each year of history, our book could reach a maximum of 32,760 paragraphs! That would be a big job; I'm not qualified for it, nor is it needed here.
Suffice it to say that over 168 years, largely anonymous people -- not unlike yourself -- all over the world embraced communism and joined with others in a common attempt to find solidarity in their fight for a better life for themselves, their children, and their children's children. Multitudes of all races, religions, cultural backgrounds, ages, and genders, under an extreme wide variety of circumstances: third world and developed countries, liberal democracies or right-wing military dictatorships. Some were relatively free to pursue their activities openly and relatively in peace, within the law, some had to defy unjustly repressive laws, targets of state or bosses' violence.
Imagine those hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of faceless men and women organising themselves at work, with their work mates, and friends and neighbours: forming a union, or supporting another union's own fight; campaigning to elect a local councilman/woman or opposing anti-labour legislation; educating workers or collecting funds; fighting politically in an election or militarily in the bush.
Those anonymous people could tell you this: it's not an easy job and there's no guarantee of personal safety or, much more importantly, collective success.
A possible avenue is armed conflict. It's costly in human terms and the physical destruction resulting may make victory -- even if it came and it may not come -- all but meaningless. You don't need to be a Harvard alumnus to understand that: just watch the news. Further, cliques may usurp power for their own purposes, if victory were achieved.
Compared to that electoral/political struggle is a no-brainer and indeed the question that doesn't seem to cross the mind of the Harvard philosopher is why, then, millions of otherwise normal people have followed the second route. Could they all have been congenital cretins?
As it happens, anyone able to watch the news on TV knows the "peaceful way" has a way to turn violent, in spite of people's intentions. The abstract border between "voting" versus "violence" exists only in the mind of the philosopher. You don't choose one or the other: you play the cards you were dealt.
And it's not like the voting way is exempt of its own pitfalls beyond its tendency to degenerate into outright violence: small victories achieved through voting appear as the only victories worth fighting for; spontaneous leaders metamorphose into pragmatic, detached professional intermediaries, self-important career judges, instead of advocates; each small victory suggests the class war is over and we won ("Yay! The boss just bought new chairs for the staff room! See? I knew it! Marx was wrong!"). Harvard intellectuals may prefer to ignore this, but the tendency cliques have to usurp power doesn't manifest itself only in wartime. It's not "those people's" disease only. That's how social democracy became what it has become and once powerful unions subsist merely as funding appendages of social democracy.
Bottom line, there's no silver bullet, my friend. It's risky, it's unfair, it's tragic, it's terrible. Yes, it's all that and much more. You like famous quotes? I'll give you a famous quote: "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat".
That's not much of a sales pitch, is it? Well, get over it. It's just how things are: there will be many defeats, many dead ends, until one day we finally get it right. Or we die and our civilisation and maybe even Homo sapiens disappears with us. It's the same logic of evolution by natural selection: adapt or perish.
The clock is ticking, my friend, and we may be running out of time as things stand: tick, tack.
Ultimately, the proof of the pudding is in the tasting: In over 168 years, most of those hot or cold conflicts ended in the communist movement's defeat, often a bloodbath following a bloodbath.
History shows that many armed rebellions failed but that some succeeded in conquering power. Basically, these are the only times the communist movement won. Were these few examples unequivocally successful? The short answer is no. The longer answer is that some of them achieved some good things (many more than their enemies would be willing to admit), but at a terrible price, under extreme difficulties. Some of them (Cambodia and its killing fields, for instance) not even that. Did they at least achieve socialism? Nope. Not by a long shot.
History also shows that one thing never happened in over 168 years of trying desperately: a successful and peaceful democratic transition to socialism. Much as I hate to admit it, there's absolutely no real, long-term, "structural" (as economists like to say) accomplishment to show on behalf of the universally preferred method. The Chilean Salvador Allende, the only avowedly Marxist politician democratically elected as head of state/government in history, was deposed by a military coup. He shot himself.
Could Allende have done better? Maybe. But we'll never know.
As you've noticed, there are many things I don't know. That includes Chilean history. Two things, however, I can say with absolute certainty: (1) Things may have started peacefully, but they didn't end that way. (2) Although the coup was basically unopposed, that didn't prevent the bloody persecution of Allende's supporters.
I'd add a third: (3) no other Marxist has ever been democratically elected since 1970. Readers, however, could quibble that the more modern Hugo Chávez (Venezuela), Evo Morales (Bolivia), and Syriza (Greece) should be counted. Although I refuse to include any of them among the Marxists, I'm not inclined to argue. This post is too long as it is. Even including them, the record of victory and achievement of the electoral way doesn't seem promising, does it?
So, should we forget all about the revolution? Which way we should prefer? What's the moral of the story, anyway?
Well, my friend, that's up to you. I'm not a prophet or a philosopher from Harvard teaching his class the truth as revealed on Mount Sinai. I'm not even your dad. There's plenty I don't know about. I'm just a fucking grunt. It's not my place to tell you what to do.
If you can realistically choose to remain neutral in that conflict, it's up to you. It seems prudent and realistic. Carry on and good luck. But you noticed the "if" there, yes? You may not be able to remain neutral forever. A time may come when the "I didn't know what was going on in those places" wears thin; when "I was just following orders" no longer persuades. You may end up having to make tough choices and new enemies. Further, your newly found allies may understand that you are taking their side forced by circumstances and your "loyalty" is contingent upon those circumstances: your claim for their solidarity is weak. In this, like in many other things, there may be no free lunches. Be grateful you still have the choice.
If you already have no choice, if life forces you to take the workers' side from the start, know this: it won't be easy, whatever way you "choose". Whatever you do, you may still fail. You'll do what you have to do because there's no choice. This is not like a chess match where you coolly choose between the Sicilian defense or the King's gambit and, whatever the outcome, you shake hands with the other guy. It's more like the Jews trapped in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943.
I will ask you something, though. Do yourself a favour, before following wannabe leaders advocating the safe logic of this or that way, demand from them to lead by example. They must be the first in line turning the other cheek to the thug with a pry bar. They must be the first grabbing weapons when weapons are uncalled for.
Something good may come out of that.