An Invitation from the Editors: What Next?

The next issue of Insurgent Notes, tentatively scheduled for publication in the early spring of 2021, will be devoted to the theme of “What Next?” We are inviting all those who read Insurgent Notes to consider contributing an article on either a particular topic/issue or on more general matters of conditions, challenges and opportunities in the aftermath of the somewhat epochal events of 2020.

There will come a time in the foreseeable future when it will be possible to engage in significant in-person political activity (including conversations, meetings, rallies, marches, pickets, boycotts, strikes, etc.) without too many restrictions imposed by public health considerations or by the characteristics of potential participants (age, health, etc.). We see what we hope to include in the issue as preparation for acting when that moment occurs. In that context, we would prioritize matters of: investigation and research; political education; the self-activity of patients and healthcare workers to articulate and advance their own concerns and potential solutions to enduring problems; the organization of all workers (employed and unemployed) to defend their material interests; the kinds of changes in everyday lives that should be advocated if we want to prevent new viral outbreaks; ideas for the effective administration of complex technical matters (such as testing and vaccine distribution) that are consistent with the conviction that practical knowledge has its place alongside technical knowledge, and the relationship between immediate demands and longer-term visions. But we welcome contributions on other topics.

For us, two challenges should be kept in mind even as we attend to more immediate concerns:

  1. what needs to be done to prepare the global working class for taking over and transforming the social production needed for human survival for all and dramatically improved life circumstances for billions of impoverished people across the globe—within circumstances that are increasingly conducive to the free development of human capacities and desires, and
  2. what kinds of political action are needed to fuse together the explosive anger of rebels on the streets and squares and the simmering anger of many billions—made much more complicated by the prevalence of all sorts of more or less outlandish conspiracy theories as well as the growing significance of mass movements of not-easy-to classify political origins (such as the Yellow Vests movement in France and even some of the protests against governmental restrictions on everyday activities during the pandemic). In both instances, the answers should guide revolutionaries as they dream, think, discuss and argue about what to do next and for the eventual replacement of this wretched state of affairs with a classless society. We are acutely aware that there is not going to be a single formula to follow across the varied circumstances of economic development and political freedom around the world. But we do think that there is something of considerable value in more consistent sharings of stories and analyses.

Among other things, that involves serious discussions about what forms of political organization and self-governance should be emphasized. In spite of the historically explosive character of the nationwide, indeed worldwide, protests that erupted in reaction to the police murder of George Floyd, the most radical forces were seldom thinking “beyond the moment.” Those radical forces were most likely to have little previous experience and that emboldened them. But the mobilization did not really become a movement. It was and is a pressing question as to how a radical left might intervene to assist the further development of those forces without undermining their autonomy and determination.

Unfortunately, there are not all that many good models for left political organizations. We don’t think that either the relatively new insurrectionist grouplets or the remnants of the Leninist/Trotskyist/Maoist sects are especially relevant. In the United States, an argument might be made that the Democratic Socialists of America—dsa (with its 70,000 or so members, its significant grassroots membership structure and its willingness to support an array of different organized political tendencies) might serve such a function. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like it has thus far escaped from the outer rings of the political orbit around the Democratic Party. However, some local chapters and some of the more left wing caucuses present different possibilities and we would welcome hearing about and discussing them.

Given the weak state of organized movements to the left of the Democratic Party and the ngos, we continue to believe that it would be quite helpful if various tendencies, whose different political ancestries often obscure essential agreements on many fundamental issues, could consider some forms of joint discussion and possible activity—but that would require a leap out of long-held sectarian assumptions. Perhaps this issue of Insurgent Notes can make a contribution to that end.

To ask “What Next?” is also to ask about the havoc that has been produced by the epidemic (understood as the spread of the virus, the illnesses and sufferings that resulted, the widespread planning and operational failures to preserve public health and material well-being, the widespread worsening of people’s material circumstances, the severe political rifts that have resulted from the decisions of local, regional and national authorities) and the political struggles that have or have not been undertaken and to take account of what might be illuminated by a scrutiny of the same phenomena.

We hope to contribute to the development of a process by which people make sense of what has happened and what they have endured. In spite of the extensive coverage by various news media, it is likely that we do not yet have an adequate appreciation of the extent of the pain, suffering, disruption and dislocation that have taken place or of the varied responses to those miseries. It would be good to have a fuller accounting of the magnitude of the toll that the pandemic has taken in:

  • deaths and long-term illnesses;
  • loss and grief at the level of families and communities;
  • disruptions to students’ educational experiences;
  • the debilitation of healthcare system;
  • long-term unemployment, with limited prospects of new employment;
  • the numbers of people who are homeless or on the verge of being homeless;
  • people without enough food (or, put more starkly, who have starved or are starving);
  • the exhaustion of workers (agricultural workers, online sellers, delivery services, hospitals, grocery stores);
  • cutbacks of governmental services;
  • the accumulative effects of all this happening at the same time in the lives of individuals, families and neighborhoods.
  • At the same time, we believe that the catastrophic events of the last year have illuminated many realities of the existing state of affairs:
  • the potential of rapid, global viral spread in the contemporary world;
  • the widely divergent trajectories of viral spread in different countries;
  • the failure of most states to develop and implement adequate coordination activities or response functions;
  • the profound dysfunction of international production and supply chains for essential healthcare supplies and equipment and the adverse consequences of just-in-time supply models for the adequacy of essential equipment and supplies;
  • the international character of medical knowledge and development of treatments (including vaccines);
  • the pervasive presence and significance of “underlying conditions” in the most immiserated communities resulting from the totality of their life circumstances;
  • the lack of enough well-prepared healthcare staff to provide quality care without the risk of exhaustion or further infection;
  • the relative lack of self-help activities (like act up) among covid victims and caregivers;
  • the relative quiescence of workers as a class;
  • the simultaneous strengths and weaknesses of Bidenism and Trumpism and their variants across the world as poles of political attraction.

Once again, our list barely scratches the surface and we need portraits with deeper colors and textures to capture what has been understood and what remains obscure. We also recognize that we need to further elaborate an analysis and argument that the full social control of production, without an imperative to accumulate, could make possible the development of high-functioning, and self-correcting, systems of administration for complex essential functions, especially in crisis circumstances.

And then there’s the continuing significance of the world before the epidemic—a world which has not gone away in the meantime. Some of those realities which need to be reckoned with are:

  • a more or less permanent tendency towards economic crisis, kept at bay only by the infusion of almost uncountable trillions of dollars and other currencies into financial institutions and markets;
  • the deepening threat modern economies pose to planetary ecosystems (of which climate change is the most prominent, but not the only example);
  • the insanely vast presence of armed-to-the-teeth states (the United States far and away the worst offender) across the globe;
  • the spread of virulent nationalism, religious, ethnic, racial and tribal antagonisms, hatreds and fears across the globe and the threat this poses to the peace, safety and well being of people everywhere;
  • the marshaling of these fears and hatreds by authoritarian, sometimes fascistic, leaders and movements;
  • the sobering reality that over 70,000,000 people in the United States voted for a blatantly racist, white nationalist, misogynistic candidate;
  • the emergence of a vigilante right wing that, at times, works in concert with the official governments and police forces and, at other times, independently and against those governments and forces;
  • the growth of a gig economy, independent contracting and freelancing as an increasingly dominant norm of employment and the concomitant decline in traditional employee-employer, full-time-with-benefits jobs and shrinkage of the official labor union sector of the workforce.1

What might be done?

Our comrades at Angry Workers in London have sent us a few suggestions to start us thinking:

  • How do we see the tension within the working class regarding the lockdown regime? On one side workers struggle for more safety at work, which might include shutting down operations, on the other workers struggle against the selective imposition of curfews, etc. Do these differences express an underlying difference in material conditions, e.g., “core workforce” vs. “marginalised workers”? Is it more of a question of political clashes within the class?
  • With the pandemic and the economic management of the crisis the state has entered centre stage again. In the United Kingdom this confuses the old leftist mantra that state intervention is what distinguishes the left from the right. In terms of class struggle the state is in a precarious situation, as now economic demands both from capitalists (bailouts) and workers (furlough money, etc.) are focused on the state. This can have a unifying effect on workers’ struggles, as there is now someone to address in common. But it has also a channeling function, as trade unions have now an easier game at “appealing to the government,” rather than taking on the bosses head on. How do we understand these contradictory tendencies?
  • At least in the United Kingdom attacks by bosses on jobs and pay are accelerating at a rapid speed and there are first responses from the unions—though weak and isolated ones. How do we think that we can intervene politically in these defensive struggles? Apart from encouraging workers’ coordinations beyond workplaces? Is there a possibility to connect these struggles to the experience of the lockdown, when a relatively small number of (key) workers pulled society through a “natural calamity” (the pandemic) and are now supposed to become the first victims of a “man made” one (the crisis)? Before the current attack on jobs and pay started the high degree of social productivity was in front of everyone’s eyes: a decade of talk about ai and automation and self-driving cars; then a year where the lockdown proved that 70 percent of jobs are actually not vital. How do we intervene in this contrast: a rapid impoverishment on one side, a recent memory of “high level of social productivity” on the other?

A World-Changing Experience?

Andy Blunden, an Australian writer and activist, has suggested that the covid pandemic can be understood as a perezhivanie (in Russian) or “world changing experience”—one of a very small number of events that, more or less simultaneously, affected many millions of individuals directly and many more millions indirectly across the world. Blunden has explored the complex meanings of the Russian word:

Formally speaking, perezhivanie means ‘an experience.’ But ‘perezhivanie’ is a Russian word which has no English equivalent which fully conveys the breadth and depth of its meaning in Russian language and culture. There are two things about how this is understood in Russia generally, and in Vygotsky’s Cultural Psychology in particular which are not conveyed in the English expression ‘an experience.’ Firstly, etymologically, ‘perezhivanie’ is equivalent to ‘survive’ in English. When people write their autobiography, they pick out from the hundreds of thousands of hours of their life certain moments or episodes (sometimes very extended ones) which they survived, times when they made life-changing, personality-forming choices, situations which they handled (or failed to handle) and which forever changed not just how they saw the world but (and this is important) how the world saw them, or when a parent or significant other (especially in the case of children) or maybe the justice system confronted them with something they had done and forced them to take (sic) reflect on it. Those experiences which changed them and made them who they are.

Secondly, as the ancient Greek dramatists knew, it is not the experience as such which changes the person. As John Dewey (1939) explained, ‘an experience’ is an active episode of a person’s interaction with a challenging situation. It is well-known that the most traumatic events, such as early childhood abuse, can be ‘repressed’ or passively accepted. Some people pass through a war and remember only the comradeship and solidarity. But in general, after the situation has passed, people reflect on it, maybe on their own in periods of quiet reflection, or together with a trusted other. However, perezhivanie always entails the subject changing their relationship with the world. Freud called this process ‘catharsis’ by analogy with watching a drama on the stage as a means of reflecting on one’s own experience, and the medical practice of purging poison from the body. Catharsis is the active process of observing, working over, reflecting upon, processing and ‘absorbing’ an experience. It is the actual work of dealing with what happened and how you responded. It is through the catharsis that the person is transformed, rather than the event itself. The event may be momentary, but the catharsis may take years. This is what perezhivanie means: the perezhivanie is this whole process. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. It is a single whole. It is the series of such perezhivaniya which makes the person.

Life is a series of perezhivaniya with long periods in between of gradual adaptation to the new you, solving the problems that life is throwing up, until the next perezhivanie changes your relation to the world.2

In that spirit, we’d like to take a fuller measure of what has occurred and what it has meant and then to think about what next. We’re asking our readers and friends to write articles and/or to recommend others who might do so. The current deadline for submissions is March 15, 2021. We’d appreciate advance notice from individuals who intend to submit. Write us. And also please get in touch if you’d like to talk over what you might write about.

Loren Goldner & John Garvey

  1. We want to thank Paul Wasserman for some very helpful comments and suggestions about these matters.↩︎
  2. See Andy Blunden, “The Corona Virus is a world perezhivanie.”↩︎


2 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Skip Kraken,

    Comrades, I fear you may be totally out of touch here. You are asking about what a communist revolution would look like? Please open your eyes and take a gander around you. Trump won 75 million votes in November (up over 10 million from 2016!). Most of those voters believe that he was cheated out of the office by a communist-pedophile conspiracy. Half (including many in the police and rank-and-file army) support the recent putsch attempt at the Capitol. Many are talking gleefully of civil war. Several have attacked civilians, disrupted flights and traffic, and assaulted elected politicians (of their own party!). They are talking openly of their plans to seize power by force. There may be, at tops, 100,000 leftists in the country. That is if you include the reformists and utopians. There hasn’t been a labor movement or even notable strike in 30-40 years. Please friends, take a serious study of the material conditions and prepare.

  2. Skip Kraken,

    Sorry for the delay in responding to your comment. We suggest that you elaborate on your observations and submit them as a possible article to be included in the issue. We have no intention of excluding voices that are profoundly pessimistic about the prospects for the immediate future. At the same time, we would hope that contributors hold on to the enduring vision of a new society.

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