The actuality of revolution

Jan 1, 2019

This Soviet poster, issued for the fifth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, embodies the revolutionary optimism of the Leninist party.

Revolution today names more a problem than it does a solution. We know that revolutions happen, but we have a hard time believing in revolution. We have a hard time believing in revolution because we are no longer confident that the revolutionary process leads in an emancipatory egalitarian direction. There are revolutions, but they are not for us, not the revolutions we were hoping for, not proletarian revolutions.

We no longer believe in revolution because we no longer adopt the perspective from which we see ourselves as revolutionaries, the perspective of the communist party. Absent this political perspective, only capitalism with its permanent crises, innovations and transformations appears as capable of effecting revolutionary change. Fortunately, the crowds and demonstrations of the last decade suggest that a new party perspective may be emerging. The collective practices and intensities exhibited in current struggles, as well as the limits against which these struggles falter, are renewing the salience of the party question on the Left. As people experience their collective power, the desire for something like a party is reemerging, a party as the organized site of our belief in revolution.

In this essay I focus on two, seemingly opposed, approaches to organization and revolution. I begin with Georg Lukács’s account of the Leninist innovation: the realization that the core of historical materialism is the actuality of the proletarian revolution. The force of this innovation comes from anticipation, the capacity of the future revolution to coordinate the actions that will bring it about. I then turn to the present and the work of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. The problem with their account is that it precludes the temporality–or conception or logic of time–that would produce revolutionary practice. Revolution is present as potential, a possibility that flows out of what we are already doing. There is no revolutionary break, no negation of some practices, trajectories, and potentials in the forwarding of emancipatory egalitarian aims. Theirs is thus a “revolution without revolution.” In contrast, the future projected in Lenin’s assumption of the actuality of revolution coordinates political action to bring revolution into being. The party anticipates the revolution, materializing the belief that makes revolution possible not just as an outflow or overflow of present possibilities, but as an effect of the negation of some practices, trajectories, and potentials and the forcing of others.

My argument relies on Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s notion of “projected time.” Dupuy introduces “projected time” as a name for “coordination by means of the future,” that is, as a term for a temporal metaphysics wherein “the future counterfactually determines the past, which in turn causally determines it. The future is fixed, but its necessity exists only in retrospect”(1). From the perspective of the future, what led to it was necessary. It could not have been otherwise because everything that happened led to it. Before an event occurs, there are possibilities, options. After something happens, it appears inevitable, destined. Projected time assumes a future inevitability, establishing this inevitability as the fixed point from which to decide upon present actions.

Projected time might seem strange. Dupuy explains that it is actually “the temporality peculiar to someone who carries out a plan that he has given to himself to carry out”(2). Planning makes clear how projected time is not a prediction of what will happen, a fantasy about what one wants to happen, or a set of proposals regarding what should happen (3). Instead, a certain outcome generates the processes that lead to it. Again, in this temporal metaphysics, the future is not the inevitable effect of a chain of causes. The future is itself the cause. The future produces the past that will give rise to it.

Dupuy developed the metaphysics of projected time in the context of an investigation of catastrophe. People have a hard time believing in imminent disaster, even in the face of abundant information that the worst is about to happen. Dupuy concluded that the obstacle preventing people from acting is not one of knowledge but one of belief. They know what will happen, nevertheless they do not believe that it will happen. Projected time addresses this level of belief. Dupuy wagers that since it is “more difficult to reject a fate than to avoid a calamity, the threat of catastrophe becomes far more credible if it appears to be something that is inevitable”(4). That very inevitability can mobilize the determination and imagination necessary for avoiding the inevitable.

A view from the future

Lenin: A Study on the Unity of His Thought is Lukács’ account of the enormity of Lenin’s theoretical contribution: Lenin realized Marxist theory in practice. Because he grasps “the actuality of the revolution,” Lenin can explain the events around him in its terms. He posits a certain future — the revolution — and lets this future guide action in the present. Lenin thus identifies the mechanism through which organization mediates between theory and practice. The projected future of revolution generates the practices that materialize the belief necessary for its realization.

Projected time tells us how to read Lukács’s claim that “the proletarian revolution constitutes the living core of Marxism” (5). The revolutionary future determines the actions that bring it about. Historical materialism is not primarily an account of the past. It is a relation to a specific future, one where “revolution is already on its agenda” (6). A distant future lacks coordinating capacity. Lenin, however, made the actuality of revolution into the point from which actions are considered. This certain future enables choices and decisions. It cuts through the manifold conflicts of groups and individuals within the masses, as well as the economic fatalism that contributes to capitalism’s own response to crises.

The actuality of revolution is the presupposition on which Lenin’s concept of the party rests. The projected future of proletarian revolution causes the Bolsheviks to select “single-minded revolutionaries, prepared to make any sacrifice, from the more or less chaotic mass of the class as a whole.” The party does not make the revolution. Nor does it try to pull along inactive masses and present them with a fait accompli. Instead, it anticipates the revolution. Given that the period is revolutionary, that the proletarian revolution is on the agenda, what form of organization follows? Lenin’s answer is the “strictest selection of party members on the basis of their proletarian class-consciousness, and total solidarity with and support for all the oppressed and exploited within capitalist society” (7). Why? Because of the way the proletariat develops its own class-consciousness and becomes able to put it to use in the context of revolutionary upheaval.

In the course of its revolutionary movement, the proletariat encounters differences within and without it. The internal differences involve economic differentiation within the proletariat (e.g., the infamous “labor aristocracy”). The external differences refer to the other classes that are part of the revolutionary alliance. Differences within the proletariat hinder class unity. Some workers, perhaps those with more education or experience in union leadership, tend to see their interests as allied with the bourgeoisie. Differences between the proletariat and other social strata create confusion, particularly as crises intensify and the revolutionary period gets nearer. The multiplicity of interests within the revolutionary alliance of the oppressed pulls them in different directions. Not every potential present in the masses forwards the revolution. Figuring out the correct path, and keeping together the alliance through which all can win, becomes increasingly difficult.

Lenin’s model of the party responds to the pull of these differences by providing an independent organizational space for the “fully conscious elements of the proletariat.” Lukács writes, “It is this that demonstrates that the Leninist form of organization is inseparably connected with the ability to foresee the approaching revolution” (8). In the party, even the most seemingly trivial decision becomes significant, that is, made in light of the projected future of proletarian revolution. A party decision cuts through myriad possibilities, directing action in one way rather than another.

Lukács’s account makes clear that even as this view of the future provides the party with its organizational form, it is the party that sustains the view. He addresses the debate between Kautsky and Luxemburg. Kautsky argues that the party is the precondition of revolutionary action. Luxemburg argues that it is the product of revolutionary mass movement. Lukács finds each view one-sided: “Because it is the party’s function to prepare the revolution, it is–simultaneously and equally–both producer and product, both precondition and result of the revolutionary mass movement” (9). The party’s role as producer is itself a product of the projected future of proletarian revolution. The party is a product not only of events as they unfold and to which it responds but also of the future that calls it into being, the future that enables it to guides its responses toward it.

Crucial to Lukács’s argument is the party’s combination of flexibility and consistency. The party has to learn from the struggles of the masses, adjusting its interpretations and practices as necessary. Responses to the present in light of the projected future are inscribed into party structure and theory. Learning from the struggles of the people is possible because of the party’s anticipation of the revolution. The party thereby unites the discoveries that arise from the mass struggle with the actuality of the revolution. Belief in revolution arises out of the combination of theory and action: actions appear as revolutionary because the future revolution is calling them into being.

In sum, Lukács presents the actuality of revolution as a projected future. Every decision, every tactic, every compromise anticipates the revolution. To the extent that party practices are coordinated by the future, they both manifest belief in it–as opposed to the more abstract knowledge of revolution posited by social democrats–and help bring it about. Lukács insists that the actuality of revolution distinguishes Lenin’s position from both social democrats and left-wing purists. From the perspective of the former, the revolution is always too far off, the proletariat never mature enough, the unions still too weak. From the perspective of the latter, the ripeness of the moment dictates a pure politics, a radical insistence on principles without compromise. Unlike either, the actuality of revolution involves the political time of anticipation and struggle, a time when the future guides the party prepared to usher it in.

Revolution today

In the final volume of their influential trilogy, Hardt and Negri announce: “Revolution is now, finally, becoming the order of the day” (10). Their theory of revolution arises out of an account of the biopolitical character of capitalism in the late twentieth century. Networked communications have transformed the process of production, contributing to its homogenization, decentralization/deterritorialization, and informatization. Knowledge, affect, and communication play a greater role; labor has become “increasingly immaterial” (11). The result is a fundamental change in the relation between production and the reproduction of life: rather than separate from and subordinated to the demands of productive work, “life infuses and dominates all production” (12). With its biopolitical turn, capitalism subsumes the entirety of the social.

On the basis of their analysis of changes in production, Hardt and Negri claim that today “the perspective of revolutionary action has to be conceived on the biopolitical horizon” (13). Such a revolution is a “revolution in life,” that is, a revolution that exceeds the range of demands and expectations associated with the labor movement.

Biopolitical revolution has a distinct temporality. In contrast to the projected future provided by the actuality of revolution, revolution today “is no longer imaginable as an event separated from us in the future but has to live in the present, an “exceeding” present that in some sense already contains the future within it” (14). Instead of a future with the capacity to coordinate action in the present, revolution coexists with and within non-revolution. Unable to imagine a future revolution, we cannot use its actuality to decide our tactics. As a distinct component of political action, tactics falls by the wayside, displaced by potentials within biopolitical production.

Hardt and Negri imagine revolution as an analogous “kind of simultaneity,” the excess and limit to capitalist command over the biopolitical production it can never fully capture or control. Biopolitical labor is generally autonomous from capitalist command, emerging out of networked cooperative practices. Capital seeks to capture, expropriate, and discipline these practices, even as it itself depends on the creativity that their autonomy unleashes. Bypassing commodification, capital extracts value directly from social relations themselves.

Hardt and Negri highlight the democratic dimension of biopolitical labor: the same networked, cooperative structures that produce the common generate new democratic capacities, and even “make possible in the political sphere the development of democratic organizations” (15). For this reason, Hardt and Negri reject “vanguard organizations.” The vanguard party corresponds to a different, earlier, structure of labor (a different technical composition of the proletariat). According to their periodization, the vanguard party fits with the early twentieth century’s professional factory workers. The deskilled workers of the mid-twentieth century fit with that period’s mass party. The political form appropriate to biopolitical labor, the one appropriate to us now, they argue, must be democratic, cooperative, autonomous and horizontally networked. The vanguard party is inadequate, “anachronistic,” because it doesn’t look like the networks of contemporary biopolitical production.

This argument is not convincing. Complex networks are not the horizontal, cooperative and autonomous forms that Hardt and Negri imagine. As Albert-Laszlo Barabasi’s work on complex networks demonstrates, free choice, growth and preferential attachment produce hierarchies, dramatic differences between the one that is most chosen and preferred and the many that are not (16). The most popular node or item in a complex network generally has twice as many links as the second most popular, which has more than the third most popular and so, such that there is very little difference among the crowd of those at the bottom but massive differences between top and bottom. This hierarchical structure is pervasive in communicative capitalism. Blockbuster movies, best-selling books, and giant internet hubs like Google, Facebook, YouTube and Baidu all reflect the power law distribution of links in complex networks. The few get a lot; the rest get very little, almost nothing. The idea appears in popular media as the “80/20 rule,” the “winner-take-all or winner-take-most character of the economy,” and the “long tail” of the many. The ostensibly creative, cooperative and democratic character of networked communication does not eliminate hierarchy. It entrenches hierarchy by using our own choices against us. And, as Barabasi’s work on complex networks makes clear, this hierarchy is not imposed from above. It is an immanent effect of free choice, growth and preferential attachment.

A political form mirroring biopolitical production would not be horizontal and democratic. Its democracy would produce pow- er-law distributions, unequal nodes or outcomes, winners and losers, few and many. We see this phenomenon on Twitter as people fight through trending hashtags: hashtags provide common names that serve as loci of struggle. When they trend, they rise above the long tail of the millions of unread, unloved Tweets coursing through the nets. The democratic element — people’s choice to use and forward — produces the inequality that lets some hashtags appear as and even be, for a moment, significant. The fact of emergent hierarchies suggests that an emergent vanguard may well be the political form necessary for struggles under biopolitical conditions.

The structure of the complex networks of biopolitical production indicates that, contra Hardt and Negri, a vanguard party is not anachronistic at all. It is instead a form that corresponds to the dynamics of networked communication. This structure indicates an additional problem with Hardt and Negri’s rejection of the vanguard party. They characterize Lenin’s party as involving an organizational process that comes from “above” the movements of the multitude. Historically, this insinuation is clearly false. The Bolsheviks were but one group among multiple parties, tendencies and factions acting in the tumultuous context of the Russian Revolution. They were active within the movements of the oppressed workers and peasants. The movements themselves, through victories and defeats, short- and long-term alliances, new forms of cooperation, and advances in political organization gave rise to the party even as the party furthered the movements.

Finally, Hardt and Negri criticize Lenin’s party on the grounds of identity. For them, the party is a “new identity,” and they think that revolution today must aim at the abolition of identity (17). Lenin’s party is not an identity; it is a process whereby the distinctions of what Hardt and Negri associate with identity are smoothed out and a collective revolutionary will is generated (18). The party functions through the installation and maintenance of a gap within the field in which identity is given, not as a new identity.

For Hardt and Negri, the goal of revolution is “the generation of new forms of social life” (19). They describe revolutionary struggles as a process of liberation that establishes a common. Such a process, they argue, consolidates insurrection as it institutionalizes new collective habits and practices. Institutions, then, are sites for the management of encounters, extension of social rupture, and transformation of those who compose them.

The resemblance between these institutions and the vanguard party is striking. The party involves a common name, language, and set of tactics. It has practices that establish ways of being together. Its purpose is occupying and extending the gap within society that class struggle denotes. As Lukács insists, Lenin’s concept of party organization prioritizes flexibility and consistency; the party has and must have a capacity for self-transformation. What Hardt and Negri describe as the extension of insurrection in an institutional process is another way of theorizing the party.

Because they disavow the party, their version of democratic organization lacks a position that can anticipate the revolution and thereby materialize belief in its actuality. The future does not exercise coordinating capacity. Hardt and Negri emphasize that revolution is “squeezed in the vise between past and future, leaving it very little room for maneuver.” They write, “even when revolutionaries think their actions are sufficient to launch us into the future, the past bursts through to reimpose itself.” And they conclude, “Revolution’s creation of a new form of government holds off the past and opens toward the future” (20). Rather than products of the revolution they produce, revolutionaries in Hardt and Negri’s version remain at a distance from the future. Their actions seem disconnected from it, uninformed by it, and hence all the more under the sway of the past. Revolution opens to the future, but a projected future does not call into being the forces that will have produced it.

Lacking a vision of the future capable of orienting action, Hardt and Negri outline instead a platform of demands without a carrier, without a body to fight for them. Their model of institutions suggests that a party or parties could be such a carrier, but rather than presenting their platform as a party platform, Hardt and Negri present them as demands to be made to existing governments and institutions of global governance. The demands are for the provision of basic means of life, global citizenship and access to the commons. They acknowledge that “today’s ruling powers unfortunately have no intention of granting even these basic demands” (21). Their response is laughter, “a laugh of creation and joy, anchored solidly in the present” (22). No wonder they do not present their demands as the platform of a party. The demands are not to be fought for. They mark potentials present already in the biopolitical production of the common, limits to capitalist control.

The identification of egalitarian potential in what generally seems a bleak and miserable present is laudable. Absent a party oriented toward its realization, though, it is hard to believe that this potential is stronger than, say, a neo-feudalism of globally connected fortress-cities surrounded by impoverished scavengers competing for access to a better life via networked gaming platforms and desperately defending their last bits of fresh water and arable land from refugees fleeing ever intensifying resource wars while the tiny class of global billionaires eat caviar in gold-plated jets. No practices coordinated by means of the future materialize this belief. Precisely because our setting is one of exploitation, ownership, competition and struggle, our sense of the present has to be tied to the future that results from the realization of some potentials rather than others. The party is the form for this realization insofar as through it the future can produce the actions that will have brought it about.


Across the globe, crowds are rupturing the status quo, the actuality of their movement displacing the politics of identity. These mobilized crowds are forcing the Left to return again to questions of organization, endurance, and scale. Having come up against the limits of immediacy and horizontality, activists and organizers alike are thinking again about institutional forms like the party.

Hardt and Negri imply that the party form is outmoded. I have argued that not only do contemporary networks produce pow- er-law distributions of few and many but that emergent hierarchies–particularly when understood in terms of the vanguards and practices that already emerge out of political movement–point to the ways that party organizations emerge. Current examples of this tendency include the adoption of common tactics, names and symbols that bring together previously separate, disparate and even competing struggles. When local and issue politics are connected via a common name, successes in one area advance the struggle as a whole. Separate actions become themselves plus all the others. They instill enthusiasm and inspire imitation.

A global alliance of the radical Left, or, better, a new party of communists, can be knit together from the concentrated forces of already existing groups: militants skilled at direct action, artists adept with symbols and slogans, parties experienced at organizing, issue groups knowledgeable about specific areas of concern, mutual aid networks addressing basic needs. If this new party is to be an agent of revolutionary time, it will have to continue to foster and even amplify the common practices and tactics capable of materializing revolutionary belief. This fostering and amplification requires discipline, choices, conscious planning, and decisions regarding what to prioritize and how to allocate resources and energies. Precisely because of the multiplicity of the experiences of the oppressed, we need the party as the form through which we discipline ourselves, through which we produce the collective political will that will push revolutionary tendencies in an emancipatory egalitarian direction.

Many of us are convinced that capitalist crises have reached a decisive point. We know that the system is fragile, that it produces its own grave-diggers, and that it is held in place by a repressive international state structure. Yet we act as if we did not know this. The party provides a form that can let us believe what we know.


1 Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Economy and the Future, trans. M.B. DeBevoise, East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2014, 110.
2 Dupuy, 116.
3 Projected future thus functions differently from the program put forth by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams in Inventing the Future,
London, Verso, 2015.
4 Dupuy, 129.
5 Lukács, 12.
6 Ibid. (italics in original)
7 Lukács, 30.
8 Lukács, 29.
9 Lukács, 32.
10 Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Commonwealth, Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009, 344.
11 Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2000, Empire 365.
12 Hardt and Negri, Empire, 365.
13 Commonwealth, 239.
14 Commonwealth, 242-243.
15 Commonwealth, 354.
16 See my discussion in Crowds and Party, London, Verso, 2016, 12-13.
17 Commonwealth, 334.
18 As Lukács writes in “Towards a Methodology of the Problem of Organization,” “the Communist Party as the revolutionary form of consciousness of the proletariat is a process by nature,” 316, italics in original; and, “the party exists in order to hasten the process by which these distinctions are smoothed out,” 326–the distinctions Lukács is referring to are stratifications within the class.
19 Commonwealth, 354.
20 Commonwealth, 360.
21 Commonwealth, 382.
22 Commonwealth, 383.

This essay was originally published in our book, Storming the Gates: How the Russian Revolution Changed the World, published on the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.

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