How Would Revolutionaries Know When to Start the Revolution?
By Bob Avakian
How would revolutionaries in a country like the U.S. know when it would be possible to start a revolutionary struggle for power? And what does this have to do with the whole strategic orientation of the United Front Under the Leadership of the Proletariat (UFuLP)?
As I wrote in the “Ask the Chairman” series, talking about the whole process of preparing for and waging revolutionary war when the time becomes right: “At all times the people should resist their oppression and defend themselves against the attacks of the oppressors and enforcers of this system–the Party should lead them in this and work to make this serve the overall preparation for revolution, developing the places where the masses live and work into strongholds for revolution. But, in the U.S. and other imperialist countries, it is only right to get into a `war situation’ and engage in actual acts of warfare against the system when the conditions exist for carrying that war forward toward victory. As Mao said, revolutionary war is a war of the masses–only if masses of people are prepared and determined to support and to actively take part in this war can it have a chance of success. The objective of Maoist people’s war is not just to militantly challenge the system but to actually overthrow this system–not just to fight but to win.”
And as I discussed in Could We Really Win?–“When the time is right for launching revolutionary warfare, it must take the form of mass insurrections, centered in the urban areas, leading to the establishment of a revolutionary regime in as much of the territory as possible, and then the waging of a civil war to finally and completely defeat the old ruling class and its counterrevolutionary armed forces.”
Here I want to speak a little bit to Lenin’s three conditions for armed insurrection. Now these are three conditions that he discusses specifically in relationship to armed insurrection and it’s somewhat different from other formulations by Lenin about what constitutes a revolutionary situation. There are several formulations where he talks about how the ruling classes are unable to rule in the old way and the masses are unwilling to live in the old way–and he emphasizes in many of these formulations the crucial role of a vanguard in giving that unwillingness of the masses to live in the old way a conscious and an organized revolutionary expression in order to carry things through and make a successful revolution. But speaking specifically of the crucial criteria for an armed insurrection, Lenin says the following. First: “To be successful, armed insurrection must rely not upon conspiracy and not upon a party, but upon the advanced class.”
Now this is a very important point. He says “not upon conspiracy”–in other words, not a small number of outraged intellectuals, or people trying to carry out an armed struggle on their own, divorced from any revolutionary expression among the masses and any kind of revolutionary people coming forward. And he says it can’t rely only upon a party; it must rely upon the advanced class. Now obviously Lenin is not saying that a party is not important and you don’t need a vanguard; but he is saying that insurrection doesn’t fundamentally rely upon a party. In other words, the party itself cannot carry out the insurrection. That’s the first point.
And the second point is a kind of continuation of the first point: “Insurrection must rely on a revolutionary upsurge of the people.” This is also in contrast to the idea of just relying upon a conspiracy or even just upon the party itself, and it makes clear what in fact an insurrection does have to fundamentally rely on. It has to fundamentally rely on an advanced class and on a revolutionary upsurge of the people. In other words, it is not just the revolutionary class–the proletariat in this era–in any old state of organization and consciousness, but a politically conscious class expressing itself in terms of a revolutionary upsurge and drawing forward broad masses in this upsurge.
The third point, to which I want to devote some particular attention, is this: “Insurrection must rely on that turning point in the history of the growing revolution when the activity of the advanced ranks of the people is at its height, and when the vacillations in the ranks of the enemy and in the ranks of the weak, half-hearted and irresolute friends of the revolution are strongest.” That is the third point. And, Lenin emphasizes, these three conditions for raising the question of armed insurrection distinguish Marxism from Blanquism, or in other words, from terrorism, with regard to armed struggle and the seizure of power. (It is important to keep in mind that Lenin is specifically speaking about the insurrectionary road in imperialist countries and is not considering the question of protracted people’s war in a Third World country, although even in this latter case, the revolutionary war must be a war of the masses, it must increasingly draw in the masses, and must fundamentally rely on a revolutionary people in that sense, and cannot rely upon a conspiracy or solely upon a party.)
I want to return to how Lenin formulates this 3rd condition or criterion for insurrection and particularly to the parts I’ve underscored above. He says that armed insurrection depends on a certain turning point in the history of revolution, in the developing revolutionary situation and revolutionary movement. We know that generally insurrection depends on a revolutionary situation, but within the development of the revolutionary situation, Lenin is stressing, it relies upon a key turning point–a key turning point within the acute revolutionary situation when the activity of the advanced ranks of the people is at its height and when the vacillations in the ranks of the enemy and in the ranks of the weak, half-hearted and irresolute friends of the revolution are strongest.
What he’s getting at here has to do with the whole strategy for revolution and how revolutionaries approach the question of friendly neutrality, and how in a certain sense this could make all the difference.
Key Ingredients for Revolution
If you read Henry Kissinger’s memoirs of his years in the White House with Nixon, he talks about some things that relate very directly to some of things that Lenin is getting at here. Specifically, he talks about a situation which lacks some key ingredients for something like a successful insurrection but on the other hand actually contains some of them–and that’s what’s most interesting.
Kissinger talks about how the ruling class was basically paralyzed by the situation that had evolved through the ’60s and into the early ’70s with the Vietnam war and widespread and tumultuous social upheaval in the U.S.: the movement against the war; the Black liberation movement and radical movements among other oppressed nationalities; and all the general upheaval of society, including the widespread alienation and radicalization of broad, in fact very broad, sections–you could almost say a whole generation–of white youth, from the middle class but also broadly in the working class; and the emergence of the women’s movement on a whole new level. Kissinger acknowledges that the ruling class lost the allegiance of very broad sections of society. (At least he acknowledges it to a certain point and in a certain way, consistent with his outlook.)
In this kind of situation, and faced with difficult contradictions and choices that they had to make in terms of what to do about Vietnam and what to do about all this upheaval and struggle within the U.S., the ruling class was really to a large degree paralyzed and was vacillating and splitting within its own ranks. Kissinger even talks in terms of how this created a kind of political vacuum, as he expresses it, a vacuum in which (in his eyes) a small radical minority in society really gained the political initiative. This is exactly one of the key features of a developing revolutionary situation, but more specifically it relates to Lenin’s third criterion for insurrection–when this kind of vacillation reaches its height. (This is a relative thing: the revolutionaries can’t sit around waiting for it to reach its absolute height, in some metaphysical sense, or else they’ll just sit by and watch while they’re smashed and slaughtered; but when this vacillation reaches a high point then this is one of the key things that would tell the revolutionary forces that they are at that specific turning point that Lenin speaks about–that point where, as we have sometimes expressed it, “Jupiter is aligning with Mars”–and it’s time to launch the armed insurrection.)
But the other part of what Lenin says–in his third criterion for armed insurrection–has to do with vacillations not only in the ranks of the enemy, but also in the ranks of the weak, half-hearted and irresolute friends of the revolution. What is the particular importance of this?
These are forces with whom we’re always carrying out a process of unity-struggle-unity, and we maintain a strategic orientation of winning them over, even though they are not firm allies of the proletariat. These are forces who always are fighting very strongly, or in certain crucial times they fight strongly, for their class position and program while we’re fighting for ours–that’s an essential objective feature of what constitutes a united front. But when things reach a certain point in a developing revolutionary situation where (again, not in some absolute, metaphysical sense, but relatively) these forces just don’t feel like fighting as hard for their line as they have in the past–when they begin to recognize themselves the limitations and impracticality of their own program and they undergo a certain political paralysis where they come to see that their program and inclinations just don’t match up to the needs of the day and therefore they are willing to throw in their support with, or at least have a position of friendly neutrality toward, the revolutionary proletariat–this is one of the key factors that goes into telling the revolutionary forces that they’ve reached that crucial turning point when it’s time to launch the armed insurrection.
This specific aspect of what Lenin is talking about, and more generally his three criteria, or principles, for insurrection are crucial in terms of everything we’re all about and what is actually involved in winning–that is, a real proletarian revolution involving millions of people.
Even if the armed insurrection initially would involve, in an active sense, a minority of society and it would be necessary to win over many of the reserves from the other side in the course of the armed insurrection and civil war, still it’s a question of masses being led by a party to carry out the insurrection (and then the civil war), and not a question of a party isolated from the masses or of a conspiracy of a few people (or even of the advanced sections of the proletariat fighting by themselves).
A Key Turning Point
Now, how does this tie in with the question of the overall strategic orientation, the overall strategy and means and methods for re-aligning class forces in a country like the U.S.?
Well, if the revolutionaries haven’t been carrying out this strategy of United Front Under the Leadership of the Proletariat all along, they would not be in the strongest position to actually seize power, even if the objective conditions become extremely favorable. They would not be in the strongest position in terms of having a revolutionary people and in particular having a class-conscious proletarian movement that’s able to march to the front and bring its interests to the fore in this situation.
For all the reasons that have been discussed, if the revolutionaries haven’t been carrying out this strategy and instead have been trying some other approach, they would not be in the strongest position to bring the outlook and interests of the proletariat to the forefront. Nor would they be in the position where, to the greatest degree possible, what Lenin is talking about is realized–particularly in terms of the weak, half-hearted and irresolute friends of the revolution, in other words, those groups in society that are not the strongest allies, are not even the most progressive middle strata, but are broader strata of the middle class that have to be won over, or at least won to friendly neutrality.
The revolution would not be in a position where, to the greatest degree possible, these middle class forces would come to that kind of attitude where they say, “O.K. let’s let it go– let’s not stand in the way of this revolution, let’s support it or at least let’s have a friendly posture towards this, because we recognize that there is no other way out and whatever we’ve been fighting for just can’t come anywhere near meeting the needs of the day.” That factor is not going to be maximized if people haven’t been carrying out this whole UFuLP strategy all the way through. Nor would the revolutionaries be able to seize on such a situation, even to the degree this mood does set in among the weak and half-hearted and irresolute friends of the revolution. They would not be able to seize on it politically or in right-down-on-the-ground organizational and military terms.
What this flows from–and what, in turn, it emphasizes–is the fact that our UFuLP strategy is not a gimmick or a short-term device but a question of strategic re-alignment, for the seizure of power; and even looking beyond that, it’s also a strategic orientation for advancing through the socialist transition to communism worldwide.
For all these reasons, this strategy of United Front Under the Leadership of the Proletariat–whether to really grasp and apply it–is a decisive point of orientation.