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The Cultural and Organizational Legacies From the Global Wave of 2011

Turkey: a Second 1848 … or 1905?


With revolt now spreading to a bedrock of capitalist stability, there is every indication that the global wave of 2011 is still alive. Turkey, marketed to the whole world as a neoliberal success story (and to the Muslim world as a model democracy), is now up in arms against authoritarianism and free market capitalism (or rather, its urban ramifications). With Turkey joining the bandwagon of revolt, 2011 is bound to have consequences far beyond its countries of origin.

However, this wave, just like the waves of 1848 and 1905, is likely to end up in partial and small victories, and defeats. In some ways, the situation is even bleaker than in all past global waves. The global mood of post-1980 defeatism persists unabated. We lack solid alternatives to the current world order. Disorganization is rampant and is even reproduced by activists through a cult of leaderless-ness.

No 1789, 1917, or 1949 can result from the global wave of 2011.

Unintended legacies

Yet, just like 1848 and 1905, the cultural and organizational legacies of 2011 might prove to be more important than the immediate gains of the revolts. 1848 did not lead to any lasting democracies, but it convinced the European working and middle classes that a more democratic and social world was possible. It put socialization on the agenda. Furthermore, the defeats of that massive revolt taught militants that they needed much more resilient leadership and organization to realize their aims. A bunch of dispersed working-class and republican political fields left their place to solid national and continental organizations by the end of the century.

The wave of 1905 is known for its defeats more than its victories. Yet, those defeats not only provided the groundwork for further political experience, education and organization; but also created the most massive directly democratic organizations of autonomy that world history has ever seen (the workers’, peasants’, and soldiers’ councils). Without the defeats, semi-victories, and lessons of 1905-1911, there would neither be a Russian Revolution, nor a Chinese one (nor, for that matter, persistent oppositional cultures in Mexico, Turkey, and Iran).

In short, even though the immediate aftermath of the global revolt was much more demoralizing in 1905, its ripple effects were arguably more revolutionary.

The question, then, is whether 2011 will be a second 1848 or 1905. Will we have to wait decades for the fruits, or is 2011 the harbinger of something to come very soon, perhaps a second 1917? Some might ask, Why would we want a second 1917, given that the hopes invested in the first one were overblown? The council revolution of that year had spread quickly to parts of Europe, to be defeated and crushed completely in a few years. It was perhaps politically and economically immature to strive for socialism in an isolated Russia, as the resulting one-party dictatorship demonstrates. Nevertheless, the few years following 1917 showed to the whole world that popular classes could organize themselves and take cihandecisions that influence the fate of their countries and the whole world. Moreover, the whole capitalist West had to reorganize its political and economic structures to incorporate popular voices and demands, out of fear of total annihilation by direct democracy. Still, the leaders of the Russian councils could have served themselves and the world better if they had set more realistic goals and persistently pushed for them in the rest of the world, rather than attempting, in vain, to build socialism in an isolated and impoverished semi-capitalist country.

The first time around, the postcapitalist revolution was a tragedy. Since people are rightfully averse to farce nowadays, no mass movement will want to learn from 1917, unless we find the concept with which to draw the proper lessons from that pivotal event.

Recursive revolution

So, what would it take today to build up to a second 1917 without the illusions, defeats and horrors of the first one?

Neither the economic structures nor the political and ideological levels of activists and ordinary people are ready for a post-capitalist world today. The Russian leaders knew that none of this preparation was in place in 1917 either. Their solution, as one formulated it, was a “permanent revolution” (or, in the words of another leader, “uninterrupted revolution”) that combined the tasks of the preparation with the revolution; of capitalist and democratic transformation with post-capitalist transformation. There was a valid insight in this endeavor: If capitalism is left on its own path, it will destroy itself and the world, rather than preparing the earth for a post-capitalist civilization. For that reason, any post-capitalist transformation has to be immature. But the next logical step they took was flawed: They trusted that the process of revolution (of which the councils were the spine) and their own leadership would be sufficient to successfully combine the preparation for socialism and the revolution. This over-confidence in popular will and misleading optimism regarding revolutionary leadership was the kernel of 1917’s illusion. In an isolated Russia, the revolutionaries were pushed to first silence those who disagreed, then the councils, and ultimately each other. The structures that weighed on them cannot be simplified into a quick formula that emphasizes the bad will and authoritarianism of a few bad apples. If the illusion repeats itself under favorable circumstances, so will the horrors.

But, if any postcapitalist transformation has to start immaturely, what can sustain it, if not a permanent revolution? Popular energy (of the kind expressed in the councils, or in today’s “Taksim Commune” and the anarchistic innovations of OWS) and revolutionary leadership are indispensable, but not sufficient. If left to their own devices, either of these two are bound to destroy the other, and the revolutionary process along with it. A slow process of political maturation and ideological co-education (an interactive education, where intellectuals and masses are simultaneously transformed) has to accompany these. People dissatisfied with capitalism should also build their own postcapitalist institutions (such as cooperatives and other collectivist enterprises), though never forgetting that these are not sustainable (as popular and democratic) in the long run without revolutionary interventions (and massive revolts).

Such a process — where activists and people focus on building alternative institutions, on co-education, and on accumulating political experience during calmer periods, but then recursively focus on revolt against barriers that block the flowering of these institutions — could be called an intermittent or recursive revolution.

The intermittent revolution is not a permanent revolution: It is based on the realization that periods of calm are necessary for institution-building and co-education in civil society. But intermittent revolutionaries would also acknowledge, unlike reformists, the necessity of mass revolts to create and sustain organs of popular power and cultures of solidarity, and to smash the impediments that undermine alternative institutions.

The leaders of 1917 also had another partially valid insight: The impossibility of postcapitalist transition in one country. This insight, however, was wedded to another illusion: the imminence of the European (especially German) revolution. To avoid the monstrosity which would result from forcefully pushing for this dream (through the invasion of its neighbors!), Russia succumbed to a dictator’s hard-nosed pragmatism (in the garb of dry dogmatism). But when we give up the illusion of an imminent transition to socialism, we can also avoid the false dichotomy between a global revolution and socialism in one country; as well as that between bookish internationalism and pragmatic nationalism. We can build a postcapitalist world only through an interregional, intermittent revolution; that is, through the cooperation of activists and peoples who have to accept defeats and semi-victories, and then move on, in solidarity. The activists and leaders of the intermittent revolution would be rooted in their own national soil, but would strategically think about and act on the possibilities of transformation elsewhere, in active interaction with leaders in the respective national contexts. Such links are already being forged today throughout the world.

In search of new organizational forms

What can we expect, then, from the global wave of 2011?

We can reasonably look forward to the spread of popular and democratic organizations and cultures. We can’t know, yet, whether mainstream cultures and state structures will be as thoroughly transformed as in the decades that followed 1848. That era witnessed, in Europe, the first moves toward the welfare state. Will states and mainstream cultures similarly incorporate 2011’s sensibilities regarding nature, urban rights, and participatory democracy? This will certainly depend on the further spread of the global revolt, as today’s incumbent regimes and elites are much more reactionary when compared to those of mid-19th century Europe.

Hence, it might look unreasonable to talk, more ambitiously, of a second 1905. But the task is more urgent today: Capitalism is reaching its financial and natural limits. It is no longer sustainable. If alternatives are not produced and implemented, the earth is going to be destroyed under its weight. What the alternatives to capitalism could be is the topic of another discussion, and that discussion should also kick into top gear now. I focus here on another task: the making of the actors who can push for the implementation of these alternatives.

What can we hope to achieve at this moment? Alongside the further spread of revolt, we can strive to create interregional links among activists and leaders; and recruit and nurture a body of activists from a generation that has engaged in politics for the first time. This recruitment and networking, though, would be historically relevant only if conducted with a strategic vision. Rather than eulogizing leaderless-ness, activists need to build flexible and democratic leadership structures. Leaderless revolt quickly dissipates or loses its direction. (If there was “no leadership” in Taksim today, as some activists claim, the square would quickly fall into the hands of the Kemalists; it is only through the — admittedly dispersed — leadership of various shades of the left that Kemalist hijacking is thwarted). Centralized leadership, we also know, robs people of their power.

A new form of leadership for a sustainable postcapitalist transformation requires an ability to learn from the grassroots, willingness to interact with popular energy, institutionalized checks and balances, and constant immersion in alternative institutions and co-education. Just like 1905 put its stamp on history through the consolidation of a new organizational form (the centralized revolutionary party), 2011 might create (or bring to attention) a new (more democratic, yet still efficient) form of revolutionary organization.

Only then can we begin to speak of a second 1905.

Cihan Tugal is a Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Passive Revolution: Absorbing the Islamic Challenge to Capitalism.