In What is to be Done, Lenin wrote that “Revolutionary theory is not a dogma, but assumes final shape only in close connection with the practical activity of a truly mass and truly revolutionary movement.” This is crucial for communists in the United States to understand. A revolution has never before happened in a core imperialist settler-colonial country, and the theory which defines the revolution here will therefore have to be unprecedented in nature.
Apartheid South Africa’s anti-colonial revolt is perhaps the closest example one can think of to the revolt from the colonized nations that will unfold in America. East Germany’s revolution following German imperialism and the Holocaust is another comparable instance. But it’s in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand that there are the combined contradictions of settler-colonialism and imperialist extraction. And in these countries, the colonial genocide has been so successful that whites have come to make up the majority of the population. We’re facing a particular set of conditions that no successful revolution has ever so far overcome. All of the existing socialist countries, as well as the USSR, have come about from revolutions to overthrow colonial occupiers, or (as in the case of the Soviets) that have had to dismantle an internal empire. But our conditions can’t be equated to those of these other places. In the United States especially, as it’s the central arbiter of imperialist violence, we within the imperialist settler colonies are fighting against contradictions more severe than those from any past revolution.
I say this not because I believe the U.S. masses face more severe poverty and exploitation than those within the colonized countries. I say this because they’re provided with the relative global privileges which citizenship in the imperial center grants them. As Roxanne Dunbar-Oritz writes in Not a Nation of Immigrants: Settler-Colonialism, White Supremacy, & a History of Erasure and Exclusion, this intertwines with settler-colonialism to make especially the white masses statistically less open to revolutionary education than the masses in most other places:
Union workers in most countries are considered a progressive if not left-wing force. But the US working class is different. [Activist and historian] Mike Davis offers three main reasons. First, by the mid-nineteenth century, workers’ geographic mobility in the United States substituted for collective action; that is, if working conditions or poor pay created intolerable conditions, the worker could move on. British settler colonialism was based on attracting settlers to free land, property; so, as Friedrich Engels observed, US culture was the “purest bourgeois culture.” Second, Davis cites the cultural division of the US working class, writing that the most disastrous obstacle to labor unity in the 1850s was the reaction of native workers to the arrival of several million impoverished Irish immigrants…The third divisive force Davis identifies in the US working class was and is white supremacy, which Irish immigrants to the United States inherited. Davis writes, “American democracy [“democracy” being not truly applicable to the U.S.] was, after all, the most spectacularly successful case of settler-colonialism and the correlative condition of ‘free land, free labor’ was the genocidal removal of the indigenous population.”
The assimilation of the Irish and the other formerly oppressed European nationalities into whiteness only served to deepen this worker division. Today, the immigrant population that the bourgeoisie uses to divide workers is the continentally indigenous Brown people from south of the border. And throughout all of U.S. history, African and Native people have been used as the scapegoat for the white proletariat’s struggles, with Asians being targeted in this way as well. The benefits of U.S. imperialism have mostly dried up for the U.S. masses since neoliberalism was implemented half a century ago, and wealth inequality became intensified to a wild degree. But white supremacy, and its ideology of the settlers having a right to treat this land as if it’s their own, are as big of an obstacle to class consciousness as ever. And if reactionary propaganda succeeds, these racist ideas will largely radicalize the white masses towards further embracing this anti-worker mindset, and fighting alongside the bourgeoisie so that the whites can keep their position as settlers.
White supremacist ideology has already succeeded in this to an extent, as a large minority of the population has embraced proto-fascist narratives like that Kyle Rittenhouse was defending himself or that the police should be supported no matter what. This development was predictable, and it’s having the consequence of rising right-wing vigilante violence. But what’s not inevitable is that the fascists will succeed at terrorizing the masses into submission, or that the masses won’t be brought into the decolonial socialist struggle.
To defeat the forces of reaction, we must not act like the theory which will characterize the revolution here is already figured out before the revolution has even begun. We must apply what theory from previous revolutions has to teach us of course, but do so while developing a particular theoretical model suited to our particular conditions. We can’t engage in theoretical stagnation by copy-pasting the approaches of other revolutions, or prematurely make up a new theoretical framework that we assume will perfectly fit into future events. The only way we’ll fully develop the theory we need for our conditions is by addressing the needs of the masses, overthrowing the capitalist state in the way our circumstances show to be practical, and building socialism in the way our circumstances demand. As the contradictions are addressed, knowledge is gained, and we become better able to further address contradictions.
This is why when right opportunist Marxists argue for limiting the Native land sovereignty movement by rhetorically asking “but what exactly will abolishing the United States look like,” or “but what exactly will full jurisdiction for the tribes look like,” they’re not engaging in the kind of materialist analysis they believe they are. They’re actually engaging in an idealist analysis. By ignoring the settler question, and by immediately claiming it’s futile to try to rectify land relations in the wake of colonialism, they’re assuming revolutionary theory on this continent doesn’t need any further innovation, and that history will vindicate their vision for a “USSA.” This isn’t dialectics, it’s dogmatism. Rejecting the idea of properly addressing the colonial contradiction because we don’t yet know precisely what this will look like upon completion is rejecting the core basis of dialectical materialism, which demands that we analyze contradictions in order to find their solutions.
If we were in pre-revolutionary Russia, these same people would be saying it’s pointless to talk of dismantling the Russian empire because we don’t yet have a perfect picture of what will replace the empire. There’s even a historical equivalent from then and there that we can identify: the Mensheviks, who Lenin described as “narrow-minded, selfish, case-hardened, covetous, and petty-bourgeoise ‘labour aristocracy’, imperialist-minded and imperialist-corrupted.” In other words, right opportunists, self-interested actors who sought to gain power by not challenging the existing cultural and social order. They purposely limited their own imaginations to rationalize not opposing the Russian empire, like how our own right opportunists purposely limit theirs to rationalize dismissing a decolonial analysis.
We can make educated guesses about what the arrangement on this land will look like after the settler state is abolished. History tells us that balkanization leaves socialist projects vulnerable to reactionary attacks, so the post-colonial nations will need to unite to some capacity from a practical perspective. Because communists seek the liberation of the entire proletariat, we know that working people of all colors and backgrounds will be equally able to participate in proletarian democracy. It’s possible that the Black and Brown communities will try to negotiate the establishment of their own sovereign territories with the tribes. And from what I’ve heard described by Native communists, all non-indigenous residents will be eligible for citizenship within the nations they live in. I don’t pretend to have all the answers though, and no one should. We haven’t yet gone through the revolutionary process that Lenin observed is necessary for the full development of theory. And even after we have, our theory will require updates and corrections, as humanity’s conditions are constantly in flux and demanding of innovations to solve new problems.
We shouldn’t fear having to figure out these kinds of innovations, as the right opportunists do. Figuring them out is unavoidable, as the USA is a prison of nations which must be not just supplanted, but have its legacy dismantled via an end to its colonial land relations structure. The details this process will involve aren’t too much to handle for a communist leadership that takes its job seriously. We must take example from Lenin and the Bolsheviks, and forge a theoretical path outside the existing social order. Not embrace a theoretical framework that upholds this social order, like the Mensheviks did.
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