Speaking to a forum of left-wing activists, my friend Gaidar Dzhemal said that Islam was the banner under which the oppressed masses have resisted tyranny for over one and one half thousand years. You could say this, by the way, of any of other popular religion. Unexpectedly, a comment shot out from the audience: “That’s all good and well, but don’t you think it’s time to destroy this tyranny, instead of simply resisting it?”
During recent years, the little word “resistance” has become fashionable among anti-globalists and left-wing activists. There are few words that are uttered with such frequency at meetings, during discussions and in declarations, few words that are charged with the same kind of positive energy. Resistance is fortitude and fidelity to one’s ideals. It entails the readiness to fight against anything, regardless of the asymmetry of power and the struggle’s obvious futility in the eyes of the man in the street. The logic of resistance is existential. I’m not going to figure out the odds. I’m just insisting on what I believe. Even if I can’t win, even if I know that I’m doomed to be defeated, I still need to do battle, since any other behavior would be treachery. I would not only be betraying the cause, but myself as well.
This is exactly how we fought against the reaction that came on throughout the 1990s. Tactical considerations played a secondary role at best. Those who calculated the odds for success soon gave up, filling the ranks of the turncoats that held forth on how Marxism had no perspective and how the free market was obviously far more effective. Others became admirers of Tony Giddens or associates of Tony Blair, German ministers of the “Red-Green” coalition, or “socially concerned” MPs of “United Russia” (=Putin’s party), who accompany each piece of legislation that further curtails the rights of the working population with an outburst of “proletarian” rhetoric. You can’t find any more former revolutionaries than among this distinguished ladies and gentlemen. They would be more than happy to overthrow capitalism. But having come to the common-sense conclusion that the revolution will not take place any time soon, that life is short and you don’t have forever to pursue a career, they prefer to serve the evils they once helped to denounce. At the same time, they never stop priding themselves on their revolutionary past, using it as a source for moral or material profit, should the suitable occasion arise.
Contempt for these distinguished ladies and gentlemen heightens the decisiveness of resistance. You don’t want to become one of them? Then fight, stay true to your principles, fend off all of the petty concerns with odds, all of the questionable tactical benefits.
But still, the logic of resistance is full of ambiguities, which become more and more apparent, the more effectively we resist. The thing is that capitalism is quite capable of surviving resistance. What it cannot survive is revolution, which destroys capitalism for good. Revolutions can fail; in fact, most attempts at revolution usually do. But, as Jean Paul Sartre said before he died, humanity’s progress can be seen as a succession of failures. If these unsuccessful attempts hadn’t taken place, we would probably still be living under feudalism. The incompleteness or even the tragic defeat of the revolution mean more to history than entire decades of “quiet” development. After experiencing such a social shock, the world will never be same.
But still, let’s return to the ideology of resistance. It’s no coincidence that this word was first uttered by General de Gaulle in the very beginning of World War Two, when the might of Nazi Germany seemed insurmountable, and the cause of Free France had already been irrevocably lost. The country was occupied, the army disbanded. A sizeable portion of the elite had betrayed the republic, leaving it to the fate’s arbitrations. It was completely natural to raise high the banner of resistance under such circumstances. But the purpose wasn’t just to stand steadfast, but to emerge victorious. Thanks to the fortitude and self-sacrifice of the early years of the war, victory became something real that could be reached, but in order to come closer to winning, it became necessary to take action in a different way. Tactics, strategies, and coordination were in high demand. What was need were effectivity and organization. In and of itself, the act of resistance is not necessarily organized; instead, it is above all else – a response to moral pressure.
After the mass demonstrations of Seattle in 1999, when the Word Trade Organization was forced to break off and postpone yet another round of talks on yet another wave of neoliberal reforms, one of the ideologues of the anti-globalist movement, Walden Bellow, announced that this was “our” Stalingrad. Sadly, Walden was wrong. Instead, one could compare Seattle to the battle for Moscow, in which its defenders showed that they were capable of victory, even if the final defeat of Nazism still seemed to lie in the distant future. We have not yet reached the decisive breaking-point in the battle against capitalism. But we are facing a new situation, in which fortitude and constance alone are no longer enough. We need to learn to win.
This means that tactics and organization have become more important. We need more positive programs and politically effective methods of activity. Compromises are possible, if they make moral and strategic sense, because they allow us to come closer to attaining our goals, which, in this way, become far more concrete.
By resisting, we attain a certain kind of moral comfort, all the more because we aren’t talking about the conditions of Germany under Hitler, where hanging around with the leftist scene could land you in a concentration camp. There is, of course, a fundamental difference between those who proclaim their ideas from a Western Europe podium, and those who are resisting the power of the transnational corporations somewhere in Nigeria or India, risking their health and even their lives on a daily basis. Usually, those who talk most about the ideals of resistance are usually those who risk the least in defending them.
Of course, this isn’t just about repression. In the final analysis, moral risks are not worth less, but probably even mean more. You can live “in confirmity with ignobility”, as the Russian writer of the 19th century Saltykov-Shedrin said. You can also simply say “no” to the system and leave it at that. In the latter case, you will be avoiding a panoply of complex and morally ambiguous questions. After all, practical work oriented at solving concrete problems continually forces you to make decisions. These decisions are questionable, since they can be mistakes. They raise moral questions that cannot be answered with ready-made responses. Who can you work together with? With whom is cooperation impossible? Where are the boundaries of compromise? From whom can you receive financial support? Under which conditions? How can you guarantee unity and effective organization while preserving democratic life within its bounds? How can we use the disagreements among our enemies to our own benefit? How can we fight to gain power, knowing full well that power corrupts? Contrary to the well-known aphorism from British politics (attributed to Lord Acton), a little bit of power corrupts even more than when power is taken over in full measure, absolutely.
In short, how do we defeat the dragon without becoming similar to dragons ourselves?
There are no general theoretical answers to such questions. They can only be answered through practical action, by acting and remaining aware of the moral and political risks involved, evaluating each mistake critically. The only guarantee consists in the fact that not only individuals but masses act collectively. Sure, loners, even heroes, armed with the wisdom of the most progressive theories, will be wrong. And the masses often also wander astray. They tend to fall prey to illusions, burning up with enthusiasm, but then falling into deep depression. The defeats of the 1980s led to such a mass depression, which remained as a subtext through the hopelessness of the 1990s. But this is actually why we need intellectual who are capable of critical thinking: it is they who can see the perspectives and dangers that the mass cannot recognize. But mass-movements, if they are capable of developing and learning, can and should control “its” intellectuals and politician. However, people are hardly always able to learn from their mistakes. But one person’s mistakes can be corrected by the others.
It’s easy to understand why anarchist ideas were so fashionable during the epoch of resistance. In the end, why do we need politics, if we can’t reach anything on that field anyway? It follows that books calling for a change will appear with anyone ever trying to take power. The grapes are green, just as in Aesop’s fable: it is impossible to take power. But it is also impossible to change the world without attempting to come to power. If this were possible, the world would know neither revolution nor political struggle. Those who rule the world, holding on to power, do not only prohibit any transformation of the system, but even refuse to embark upon any compromises before feeling a real threat to their power-base. The opposition rarely succeeds in taking control of power, but it only becomes effective when the ruling class begins to understand that the danger of losing power is completely real.
One has to admit that the majority of people in any society are hardly revolutionaries. This is true for the Marxian proletariate as well as for any other historical class. But this does not mean that the “ordinary human being” is conservative by nature. Instead, he is a romantic reformist. The more the worker realizes his class interests, the more he becomes the system’s enemy. Yet this emnity is passive. The readiness to act arise when there are concrete perspectives of success. Loners are destined to resist. Once they have become a mass in uprising, they have already taken the first step toward revolution.