Nia Frome
Original publication:

Long, Queer Revolution (2018)

16 minutes | English | The Crew

This essay was originally published in Cosmonaut in December 2018. Although more tentative and non-committal than the writings one usually finds on RS (it was a long time ago!), I think it holds up very well.
 — R. D.

Is it possible for a single mind to fully fathom the transition from capitalism to communism? I can, without too much trouble, imagine a group of about twenty people doing something like communism, but if the size of the group grows much beyond that, I’m at a loss. What’s more, imagining the end goal is not the same as imagining the transition. How fast should we expect it to be? Expecting it to happen overnight is obviously unreasonable, but why? Is it only because we’re not sufficiently organized? Or does it have to do with the stickiness of the way the means of production are set up (what some people call ‘path dependence’)? Is it mainly a question of skills? Ideology? And, even if we can all agree that it’s going to take longer than a day, how much longer? A month? A decade?

The socialist revolution is taking much longer than most socialists expected. In many ways, it has not conformed to our (always rather cartoonish) idea of what socialism should look like. Lenin led us to believe that revolts in the colonized countries would lead to a crisis of capitalism in the imperial core. They have — just not as quickly as we had hoped. Trotsky talked about uneven and combined development and emphasized the international character of the revolution. He has been vindicated, of course, by the spread of socialism to many different countries over the last century in an uneven and combined manner. The socialist revolution currently sweeping the globe is not the clean and simple transition between nice self-contained stages that any one person could have anticipated, let alone planned. It’s gigantic, slow-moving, and hard to make out (the image of Leviathan comes to mind). It’s also queer as fuck. [1]

This queerness is baked into communism, defined variously as the ideal of a stateless, classless society or as the real movement abolishing present conditions. Communism can’t ever retreat fully into the ideal without a trace of guilty conscience (although recent authors have certainly tried), just as it can’t ever be fully at home on earth. It’s neither here nor there, neither philosophy nor politics, but instead something liminal, in-between — one could say it combines the philosopher’s disdain for politics and the politician’s impatience with philosophy.

The much-maligned “transitional stage” shares in the same queerness, since it implies the simultaneity and admixture of (terribly real) capitalist and (too often ephemeral) communist forms of social reproduction. This results, naturally, in a proliferation of hard-to-categorize arrangements and nearly as many splits. [2] Each socialist faction believes it has the ratio of ideal to real exactly right, that it alone knows how to sort these arrangements into socialist and non-, and that every other faction is mistaken, evil, or both. It hopes thereby to expel or contain the scandalous indeterminacy that characterizes communism as a whole. But these judgments are just some function of the life experiences of the group’s members. Whatever validity they have is situated and temporal — it can’t be expected to cover socialism, that is, the entire transition, a process spanning continents and epochs. We can’t apprehend this process at all except by way of gross generalization, or, in other words, violent abstraction.

There’s no problem with abstraction as long as it recognizes its one-sidedness. Abstraction presents things not as they are (that is, almost endlessly messy) but instead in a way that’s user-friendly, self-identical, and suitable for symbolic manipulation. This is vital in that it enables us to think and speak about things that concern us, even very big and complex things. Abstraction, though, is prone to erasing concrete differences. It’s also utterly free, in the sense that it’s not bound to any particular level of resolution, and here I have in mind particularly the scale of a single human life. When we speak about socialism, we’re speaking about something that is much bigger than the behavior or decisions of any one person. Whatever conclusions we draw at this macro level (say, regarding the value-form) cannot be translated in any straightforward way into practical lessons for individuals without paying very close attention to the jungle of mediating levels standing between the macro and the micro. [3] This is rarely done. As a result of this failure (or at least owing to the same forces that cause it), we see a polarization between partisans of abstraction and partisans of commitment. Where the former speak in absolutes, the latter trade in apologetics.

It’s practically a tautology to say that whatever we do as a species will make use of both abstraction and commitment. What’s not obvious is where the golden mean between these two poles is to be found in any given situation. For all of us on the Left, the status quo is a world that’s far too committed to any number of outdated and inhumane practices. Dissolving these commitments is plainly one of our central goals. But this implies developing new commitments — to our comrades, to the new practices and institutions we aim to bring about, and to a socialist tradition comprising certain values and lessons, whatever we take these to be. At the same time, each of these things is indelibly marked by the past. Our comrades are products of class society. New institutions will inevitably have some kind of continuity with the ones they replace. And any tradition worth the name stretches back into an obscure (but definitely problematic) past.

There’s a millenarian tradition in socialism that has no problem saying “To hell with it, then!” Its most recent expression is the communization tendency around Endnotes and Théorie Communiste. Here we see die-hard partisanship of abstraction. It’s no surprise that these groups offer little to nothing in the way of revolutionary strategy. They even have an epithet for the bad kind of Marxism that used to strategize: “programmatism.” But a strategy is just a story about the future in which we achieve our goals. It’s a good strategy insofar as it is detailed and plausible, anticipates challenges we’re likely to face along the way, and provides entry points for individuals to get involved in carrying it out. The story is the necessary translation of an abstract analysis into an immediate cause. Without such a translation, abstraction has no purchase on the world.

The extremism of the partisans of abstraction has driven others into the opposed (but not opposite) partisanship of commitment, usually expressed as “upholding” anything that bears the slightest resemblance to socialism. Apart from being reactive and arguably parasitic on other people’s hard work, this form of partisanship (like that of abstraction) is effete, mainly serving to bolster its adherents’ moral standing in a certain kind of debate. Anti-imperialism in the developed countries, despite being full of the best intentions, has hardly any successes to its name. Apart from soldiers fragging their officers and the occasional act of industrial sabotage, it’s hard to even imagine what successful anti-imperialism in the core would look like. Commitment is vital, but a commitment that is exclusive to struggles elsewhere becomes automatic and uncritical (what is there to do but cheerlead?). It loses its room to move, to grow, to alter its environment and learn from that activity. Effective solidarity with others requires successful class war at home, and this requires more than just commitment. Only abstraction gives an idea transplantability. Without it, socialism can’t undergo the adaptations it needs to put down roots in new soil.

What do we gain from viewing the revolution as a long, queer process? Perhaps the most salutary effect is that it lets us stop arguing about whether any given state “is” or “is not” socialist. “Socialism” names a global transition; a given state may take a leading role in this transition for a time, but we should expect any state, even one in the lead, to be advancing along some fronts while it regresses or stagnates on others (wouldn’t it be entirely too stagist to imagine otherwise?). The game of tallying up progressive vs. regressive features in order to cleanly demarcate socialist countries from capitalist ones can’t ever be brought to a satisfying close, precisely because socialism is just capitalism’s turning into something else, a process that is spread out over the human race in a constantly shifting (combined and uneven) mosaic. It’s unreasonable to think in terms of pure anything, to expect any given fight or institutional innovation to be the fight or the innovation that, if everyone just got on board with it, would finally usher in communism. Instead, we should think in terms of roles — is x playing a progressive role in situation y? Trying to aggregate the answers to this question to arrive at an overall “socialism” score is just as misguided as any other quantity purporting to capture quality. [4]

Another benefit of this approach is that it emphasizes a long-term strategic outlook. This is the flipside of one criticism that could be leveled at it: that it robs socialism of urgency. While the idea of a clear black-and-white victory achievable in our lifetimes is good at getting people moving, it tends to encourage short-term thinking. One expression of this is social democracy, which despairs of achieving radical change any time soon, and so puts off the question indefinitely. Another is insurrectionism, as with e.g. The Invisible Committee. The most elegant solution (And not coincidentally the cheapest, although not the most lucrative), though, is to be so impatient that only self-cultivation in this world will do the trick, and to turn one’s focus inward, away from politics, force, and compromise.

Beautiful-soul moralism can take the form of anarchism, left communism, or even call itself “non-ideological.” By divesting entirely from any commitment except to a scattered collection of useful martyrs, this approach guarantees the believer will keep their tradition (such as it is) unblemished. Of the three approaches, it’s probably the last that has the most bile for those transitional (read: queer) measures that fall short of its strict ideal.

So excessive impatience is clearly a trap. But if we lose the sense of urgency that comes from the idea that global communism is attainable in our lifetimes, where else are we supposed to find it? Couldn’t I just slack off and let the long, queer revolution go on without me? Besides which, doesn’t climate change make a case for urgency? If we don’t achieve communism before it’s too late, we’re all boiled frogs, aren’t we?

A proper sense of urgency comes not from the abstraction “capitalism transitions into communism by way of socialism,” but from commitments we make to each other, which are already at the right level of resolution (that of a human life) and require no translation. A good strategy, then, must make use of this fact instead of railing against it (as e.g. class reductionists do), while also encompassing the inhuman scale that abstraction opens up to us. As Brecht put it:

We must neglect nothing in our struggle against that lot. What they’re planning is nothing small, make no mistake about it. They’re planning for thirty thousand years ahead. Colossal things. Colossal crimes. They stop at nothing. They’re out to destroy everything. Every living cell contracts under its blows. That is why we too must think of everything.

The argument about climate change comes from an idealist perspective in which the revolution can simply hitch its wagon to an issue and be catapulted to stardom by the direness of that issue. This gets it precisely backward. The question of power decides which issues are on the docket, not the issues themselves. The reason there hasn’t been a meaningful response to climate change (except, arguably, in some of the countries calling themselves socialist) is that the Western Left, by and large, has been stuck doing triage for decades instead of building power. Since we’ve failed to organize methodically in a way that might conceivably put us in the driver’s seat, we have not been able to make dealing with climate change a priority. This doesn’t mean that climate change won’t affect politics — it will, and it’s going to be horrifying. Fascist lifeboat politics have already entered the mainstream. But just raising the hue and cry about this does hardly anything to slow it down, let alone reverse it. Climate change is a powerful incentive to get our shit together, not a deus ex machina — there’s no way to address it that lets us skip over having to organize the working class to seize state power.

But maybe we’ve moved too far in the direction of humility and patience to still affirm this seemingly outdated formula. What’s the point of seizing state power if you can’t be sure you’ll be able to do socialism with it? Doesn’t the whole ruptural strategy presuppose a certain clarity of purpose that we’ve already thrown out with the bathwater? Here the left communists and others who talk about “socialism from below” can be helpful. If the transition from capitalism to communism depends not on a small, highly disciplined cadre, but instead on ordinary people collectively taking charge of their own affairs, this implies that those people will need to develop the habits and techniques of self-governance. This has two components. For one thing, it means appropriating for themselves the right to legitimate force, and ceasing to recognize pro-capitalist (state and non-state) violence as legitimate. At the same time, this is literally unthinkable in the context of a bourgeois state in full possession of its faculties. Only the failure and subversion of those states, culminating in their replacement by workers’ states, can create the necessary clearings for those myriad queer experiments to flourish into communism — these being, after all, the only basis on which it may ever be established.

[1] We take “queer” to mean “undermining conventional normative binaries or classificatory schema and so viewed as threatening by adherents of those binaries or schema.” 

[2] Consider the many attempts to pin down the nature of the Soviet Union: was it socialist, state capitalist, a degenerated or deformed workers’ state, bureaucratic collectivist, Bonapartist, or something else entirely? 

[3] To their credit, the authors in this tradition usually appreciate this. You will never hear a value-former say, for instance, that making commodities is wrong. They recognize that they aren’t talking about anything a single person can put into practice. They just don’t consider this an important problem. 

[4] Not to mention how we can’t anticipate the specifics of future situations with any degree of certainty.