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Hampton Think - December 23, 2021

The late sociologist Erik Olin Wright used the phrase “ruptural transformation” as stand-in for revolution, inaccurately summarizing this as “Smash first, build second.” [1] His immensely popular and useful work also unfortunately erased historical European anti-fascist strategy whose approach to revolution differed from the caricature he presented. To move beyond Wright’s important, yet misleading framework, one can even turn to DSA-founder Michael Harrington’s last book, Socialism: Past and Future.

Published in 1989, Harrington expanded upon his own earlier critique of the German social democratic party, specifically the electoral path to socialism as strategy against Hitler and the Nazis. [2] Harrington would ultimately look to a leading member of that same party at the end of this book as the basis for what he referred to as a “new middle class” on the march of “visionary gradualism.” That “new middle class” is not the “irreversible feature of the system” he thought it would be though. Despite his misplaced optimism, rather than an electoral path to socialism, Harrington argued for the proliferation of “little republics” across the so-called USA, looking to Antonio Gramsci on a cross-class “historic bloc” and the Paris Commune of 1871. [3]

This Paris Commune was catalyzed in defense against an outside force invading the city to restore the power of a monarch, a dictator supposedly appointed by god. The commune in Paris sprung from socialist clubs that had formed throughout the city, and where feminists had been building internal systems of mutual aid for decades. [4] They learned from a similar experience during the decline and fall of the republic twenty years earlier. Marx referred to those socialist clubs in 1851 as “constituent assemblies” constituting a “proletarian commune” to sustain general strikes as a systemic alternative during that republic’s fall to dictatorship. [5] Back then though, the left remained dependent on electoral approaches until it was too late. Twenty years would pass before that dictator was overthrown and the Paris Commune of 1871 was born.

When it came to the German left against Hitler and the Nazis, Harrington criticized socialist strategy that solely relied on the republic and its supposed capacity for managed capitalist development. Throughout Germany there were also autonomous councils in communities and workplaces, formed by people in both the socialist and communist parties who rejected orthodoxy in recognition of the threat posed by fascism. Though these councils were identical to the socialist clubs in France, they also looked to the successful 1917 revolution in Russia, similarly catalyzed in defense against violent forces who sought to restore the power of a monarch. ...
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