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The heroic deed: myth and revolution



Che Guevara


By Doug Enaa Greene


April 21, 2016 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Red Wedge with the author's permission -- According to legend, the last words of Che Guevara before his execution were “I know you've come to kill me. Shoot coward, you are only going to kill a man.” What Che meant here was that the cause of revolution would live on despite his death. Whether or not the myth is true, the meaning behind it has inspired revolutionaries throughout the world. In certain ways, the myth surrounding Che Guevara has been just as important as the truth. In fact, myths provide a crucial underpinning to how ideology and society is able to function. Myths play a major role not only in society, but in radical political movements, as was recognized by the French syndicalist Georges Sorel and the Peruvian communist Jose Carlos Mariategui. And despite the scientific pretensions of much of the left, myths also supply inspiration, passion and faith to militants in the course of struggle.


I. Myth


Before discussing the role of myth on the left, we need to have some idea of how myth works in the world. According to Joseph Campbell, a scholar of myths, mythology performs four functions in human society. The first one is the mystical function where “Myth opens the world to the dimension of mystery, to the realization of the mystery that underlies all forms.” [1] The universe is full of wonder, glory and mystery that we lie in awe before. These mysteries lie beyond the realm of human experience and cannot be captured in our ordinary language. Yet the symbols and rituals of mythology are a way to address and make sense of this reality that lies beyond our comprehension.


The second function of myth, Campbell says, is cosmological. Myth in this sense can be thought of as a form of proto-science, showcasing how the universe works by providing explanations for the creation of the world, the origin of human life, the change of seasons, etc. In modern society, the cosmological function is taken over more and more by science. However, Campbell states that myths and science don't come into conflict, rather science pushes to the edge of mystery, to that which can never be known, such as the source of life.


Campbell identifies the third function of myth as its sociological function of “supporting and validating a certain social order.” [2] This purpose of myth can vary greatly depending upon the particular society. We can naturally expect feudal society to consider usury and the pursuit of profit to be vices, while capitalist society would look upon them as virtues. Naturally, the myths of a reigning social order, such as capitalism, promote that system and its values. Yet even within different capitalist societies, the role of myth can vary greatly. Let us expand on this.


For example, the predominant myths in the United States promote individualism, the American Dream and white supremacy. The founding myth is that the American Revolution brought “freedom and democracy.” Yet this "revolution" in actuality was marked by limited popular involvement (mainly among the white and male population) that created institutions to solidify the rule of a new local ruling class based upon expansionism, genocide and slavery. This legacy of the American Revolution has made it quite easy to be used, obsessively so, by American leaders to promote the dominant values of capitalist society which is reflected in the working class. The reality of the American Revolution has in fact made it difficult to be embraced by those advocating egalitarian change. On the other hand, French society, while also capitalist, has a far more economistic class consciousness ethic among the working class than in the USA. Modern France owes its origin to the Revolution of 1789 which was a massive social upheaval from below (far surpassing the American Revolution) that brought radical changes that conflicted with the bourgeois leadership. While the reigning social order in France can be traced to 1789, there is an ambivalence in the embrace of the values of the revolution by the ruling class. Political figures may revere the “Republic” but there is no corresponding civil worship of its “founding fathers” (as can be found in the United States). Although conservatives can wrap themselves in the Tricolor, the slogan “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” can easily be appropriated by opponents of capitalism such as socialists, communists, and anarchists.


Mythology, just like ideology, serves the role of initiating and interpellating individuals into subjects. The reigning myths associated with them in society such as the American Dream or Christian values, are not merely mistaken ideas or examples of “false consciousness,” but rather they exist in material practices (such as schools or churches). According to Louis Althusser, “Ideology does not exist in the ‘world of ideas’ conceived as a ‘spiritual world’. Ideology exists in institutions and the practices specific to them. We are even tempted to say, more precisely: ideology exists in apparatuses and the practices specific to them.” [3] Ideology (such as myths) exists through the Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA), even though they are private – churches, schools, families, etc, they still reinforce the rule of the dominant class through ideology. We can see this in the example of Christian fundamentalism, whose adherents not only believe in God, pray and attend church. As Althusser says, “If he believes in Duty, he will have the corresponding attitudes, inscribed in ritual practices ‘according to the correct principles’.” [4] Thus, a Christian fundamentalist is likely to be an American patriot who waves the flag, raises their children to revere the institutions and laws of the country (so long as they are in conformity with family values), serve in the military, etc.


Yet whereas it was the church that was dominant in feudal society, Althusser identifies the school as the main ISA in modern society. [5] At school, students learn not only skills such as reading and writing, but socialization in the reigning values and culture of society, so that they can eventually become “good” and “obedient” citizens. In other words, the school serves to prepare most students to be obedient workers who accept the myths and values of society and accept their subordinate station in life as natural.


We should not look at the interpellation of subjects through the ISAs as denying human agency (which is a common objection to Althusser). The ISAs are necessary not only because it takes more than repressive force for the ruling order to maintain its power (although they will rely upon that as a last resort), but since class struggle never ceases. “Just as the class struggle never ceases, so the dominant class's combat to unify existing ideological elements and forms never ceases. This amounts to saying the dominant ideology can never completely resolve its own contradictions, which are a reflection of the class struggle - although its function is to resolve them.” [6] Ideology and myths remain a battleground. The same Christian fundamentalists may consider themselves to be patriotic Americans who believe in free enterprise, but if they are on strike on a picket line, they will no doubt react with hostility to scabs. Or the fundamentalists may attend a Tea Party rally to protest a more “liberal” or “socialistic” government that they see as drifting away from or betraying “true” American values.


Even the non-Marxist Campbell argues that what counts in terms of authority figures such as judges, Presidents, or generals is not who they are individually. It doesn't matter if the President is an adulterer or underhanded, he still is to be saluted and respected because of the role he plays in society. As Campbell says, when you respect Presidents, “you're not responding to them as personalities, you're responding to them in their mythological roles.” [7] According to Campbell, the President should not be corrupt, rather he needs to understand that to perform the mythological role required of him, that “he has to sacrifice his personal desires and even life possibilities to the role that he now signifies.” [8] The mythological role of the President is reflected in how the “Founding Fathers” such as Washington and Jefferson or later Presidents like Abraham Lincoln are revered.


We can see the mythological role played out in the Presidential campaign of candidates, whether Bush, Clinton, or Sanders, who are portrayed as fighting and standing for “America” (portrayed with slight variations in meaning). It doesn't matter that all this is a total fabrication, what matters is that the role the President, regardless of the individual, plays as a force of social cohesion and in promoting the myths and ideology of America. Thus, in order for the mythological role of President to function, it takes interpellated citizens who accept it on the one hand and an individual candidate who (at least appears to) to forfeit their own wants and needs for the greater good of the country. The President thus becomes the literal embodiment of the nation.


The last function of myth that Campbell identifies is its pedagogical role: “how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances. Myths can teach you that.” [9] Human beings regardless of the society they live in, go through different stages in life — moving from childhood to adulthood with new responsibilities that can include marriage and family. There are different rites and rituals that are expected to go through to learn how to function as responsible and ethical members of society, whether by graduating from college, going to communion or a bar mitzvah. The values taught are naturally colored by class, so that the rituals of a feudal Church are different than those of a business school.


Campbell's four functions of myth apply to socialist movements as well. As we shall see later, when discussing Mariategui, even though socialism is founded on materialistic and scientific principles, myths, symbols, and rituals play key roles in teaching militants how to live, fight and to die as comrades for the communist ideal.


II. Georges Sorel


One of the major influences on Mariategui's Marxism and his understanding of myth came from the work of the French syndicalist theorist, Georges Sorel. Mariategui hailed Sorel as an equal of Lenin for undertaking “the true revision of Marxism, in the sense of the renovation and continuation of the work of Marx...” [10] Sorel was praised for returning socialism to the “original sentiment of class struggle, as a protest against parliamentary pacification, bourgeoisified socialism,” that was found in reformist socialism. Lastly, Mariategui said, Sorel established “the religious, mystical, metaphysical character of socialism” which proved that “the strength of revolutionaries is not in their science; it is in their faith, in their passion, in their will. It is a religious, mystical, spiritual force.” [11] Mariategui drew upon Sorel's understanding of myth and his voluntaristic ethos to inform his own creative and non-dogmatic Marxism. However, Sorel himself remains highly controversial, and his writings on the power of myth and defense of violence, expressed most clearly in Reflections on Violence, have inspired not only Marxists such as Mariategui and Antonio Gramsci, but fascists such as Benito Mussolini.


Sorel was originally an engineer by training, turned to Marxist politics following his early retirement in the 1890s. He contributed to a number of Marxist journals and was involved in supporting Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish military officer falsely accused of treason. However, Sorel did not adhere to the determinism found within the Second International that explained history and the behavior of people through their economic motives. Sorel took up the defense of Marxism against those he perceived as vulgarizers because to him, the moral content was vital. [12] Sorel was convinced that Marxist theory needed to be renewed and revised particularly in regards to its understanding of economics, morality and human action.


To that end, Sorel cast an admiring eye on the work of the Italian Marxist Antonio Labriola and briefly to the German Eduard Bernstein during the revisionist controversy. Labriola was praised for his defense of historical materialism and Marxism as a theory of action. [13] Sorel commended Labriola for breaking with the economic determinism of Marxism and stressing the importance of ethics. [14] As part of Sorel's own revision of Marxism, he came to the conclusion that the labor “theory of longer has any scientific usefulness and . . . gives rise to a great many misunderstandings.” [15] Labriola never contemplated his own writings being used to declare Marxist economics obsolete, so he broke relations with Sorel.


Sorel's defense of Dreyfus was informed by the moral desire to defend the notions of truth and justice. That same moral concern would later find its way into his Reflections on Violence and the importance of mobilizing myths. Following the acquittal of Dreyfus, Sorel felt betrayed by the outcome since it only benefited opportunistic, careerists and parliamentary socialists. Sorel was repulsed by the reformist politics of Jean Jaures and Alexander Millerand, the latter of whom entered a government of “republican defense.” Sorel was alarmed at what he perceived to be the statism and Jacobinism found in the government. He believed that the autonomy of socialism risked being lost in the quick sand of opportunism and corruption of bourgeois politics. [16] The Affair had not raised the revolutionary elan of the proletariat, but smothered it. Sorel believed that any revolution must destroy the institutions and values of liberal democracy that was leading civilization towards decadence.


To Sorel, the parliamentarism, gradualism, opportunism and reformism found in the parties of the Second International led him to conclude that “the anarchists were right about this, and that, in entering into bourgeois institutions, revolutionaries have been transformed by adopting the spirit of these institutions: all the parliamentary deputies agree that there is very little difference between a representative of the bourgeoisie and a representative of the proletariat.” [17] Sorel's criticism of the dominant orthodoxy of official Marxism was echoed in the syndicalist movements that developed in opposition to it. Syndicalist unions emerged in France, such as the General Confederation of Workers (CGT), which eschewed any form of political action, reliance on direct action, and a general strike by workers to usher in the revolution. Following 1906, there was an upsurge of labor unrest in France that led to strikes among postal workers, railway workers and numerous others. In 1909, the strikes caused the government, led by the ex-Blanquist Georges Clemenceau to call in the army, who fired upon the workers. [18]


By this time, Sorel had embraced syndicalism and attempted to theorize the movement in Reflections on Violence. In this work, Sorel completed his revision of Marxism, expunging any hint of determinism or its use as a method to understand the laws of the capitalism. Sorel also embraced Henri Bergson's theories of the irrational and the power of intuition, along with Nietzsche's ethics of revolt and the contempt for established morality. For Sorel, Marxism was reduced to the class struggle, and its central tenets were to be interpreted as myths.


In contrast to the “garrulous and lying” parliamentary socialists, Sorel praised the syndicalist movement as the “great educative force that contemporary society has at its disposal for preparing the work of the future.” [19] Central to syndicalism was that it was a reflection of the revolutionary general strike which produces an “entirely epic state of mind” that turns the “men of today into the free producers of tomorrow working in workshops where there are no masters.” [20] These workers would be transformed, through their steeling in the “economic epic” of modern factories and by participating in the general strike where the proletariat organizes itself for battle, separating itself distinctly from the other parts of the nation, and regarding itself as the great motive power of history, all other social considerations being subordinated to that of combat; it is very clearly conscious of the glory which will be attached to its historical role and of the heroism of its militant attitude; it longs for the final contest in which it will give proof of the whole measure of its valor. [21]


These heroic workers had no need to plan of battle for the conquest of state power, rather their victory and the downfall of capital would result from the emergence in the working class of a new heroic mentality and the passion of violence, which inspired by the myth of the general strike. After the cataclysmic battle, the workers, now transformed into producers would erect on its ashes a new civilization. To Sorel, whereas once the bourgeoisie, “was still, in the great majority, animated by the conquering, insatiable and pitiless spirit which, at the beginning of the modern epoch, had characterized the creators of new industries and the discoverers of unknown lands,” it had now degenerated and “become almost as stupid as the nobility of the eighteenth century.” [22]


Sorel's argument hinges on the contention that myth encloses the “whole of socialism in the general strike... [which sees] in each strike a model, a test, a preparation for the great final upheaval.” [23] Although other Marxist theorists of the general strike such as Rosa Luxemburg saw its ethical power in preparing the proletariat for combat, it seen by her as a specific tactic, not a universal theory of revolution. Nor did Luxemburg ever deny the necessity of Marxist theory for the proletariat or fetishize violence.


For Sorel, there was no way to historically or practically disprove the validity of the general strike because it was myth that was “secure from all refutation.” [24] No matter how valid science or criticism, it was could not shake the faith of people in myths such as religion or the general strike. A myth cannot be refuted “since it is, at bottom, identical to the convictions of a group, being the expression of these convictions in the language of movement; and it is, in consequence, un-analyzable into parts which could be placed on the plane of historical descriptions.” [25] A myth was beyond reason and analysis. Myths like the general strike were important to Sorel because they are “are almost pure; they allow us to understand the activity, the sentiments and the ideas of the masses as they prepare themselves to enter on a decisive struggle; they are not descriptions of things but expressions of a will to act.” [26] Thus a myth in the modern world is a tool of combat that can inspire people to destroy the existing order.


Yet Sorel distinguished a myth from utopia because the latter was an intellectual product which is a combination of imaginary institutions having sufficient analogies to real institutions for the jurist to be able to reason about them; it is a construction which can be broken into parts and of which certain pieces have been shaped in such a way that they can (with a few alterations) be fitted into future legislation. [27]


A utopia can be refuted by showing that it is incompatible with “the necessary conditions of modern production.” [28] Thus, Sorel detached Marxism from any analysis of society or rationality and replaced theory with revolutionary myths that were needed to bring forth apocalyptic violence. Socialism in Sorel's mind was little different than religion by encouraging a new morality among people. [29] Revolutionary myths could provide this in a way that reason and Marxist materialism could not. The myth of the general strike was an inexhaustible source of regeneration that would serve as a catalyst for new rituals, symbols, legends and creation to enable the proletariat to affirm and link themselves to something transcendent and eternal.


Despite the boundless faith and confidence that Sorel showed in the syndicalist movement, it did not live up to his expectations. Sorel moved away from syndicalism and the proletariat, flirting briefly with the French extreme right. Before his death in 1922, Sorel's political passions were rekindled by both Mussolini (who claimed Sorel as an inspiration) and Lenin.


The syndicalist movements of Europe and the United States, despite major strikes, was unable to overthrow the bourgeois state. Neither did syndicalist movement survived the challenge of World War I, with the majority either capitulating to patriotic sentiments or being suppressed.


Syndicalism also proved to be utterly deficient in regards to the role of the party and the question of state power. In the end, no general strike anywhere brought down the rule of capital, ultimately proving that syndicalism failed the test of power. It was the Bolshevik Party, organized by revolutionary communists, who were able to revitalize Marxism in 1917 by leading a successful revolutionary seizure of power and establishing a new order in Russia. Bolshevik success was built on the concept of a revolutionary party, the unity of theory and practice and the example of soviets. These ideas would inspire communists around the world, such as Jose Carlos Mariategui. [30]


And as we shall see, Mariategui while holding fast to Marxism as a method and doctrine, would find that Sorel's ideas on myth helped to combat determinism, encourage heroic revolutionary action among the proletariat, and ultimately inspire workers to create a new socialist world upon a degenerated bourgeois society.


III. Mariategui


José Carlos Mariátegui was born on July 14, 1894 (Bastille Day) in Moquegua, Peru as the sixth child to a humble liberal father and a devout Catholic mother (who raised him). Mariategui spent his youth in his grandfather's leather-working shop, listening to the stories of the laborers who came through and recounted  stories of the working and living conditions on the latifundios, which resembled those of serfdom. At the age of eight, following an accident, Mariategui developed persistent problems in his left leg that eventually caused it to be amputated in 1924, confining him to a wheelchair for the remainder of his life.


Due to his family's poverty, Mariátegui left school in the eighth grade, to find a job to help support them. He managed to acquire employment as a linotypist at age fifteen with the Peruvian newspaper, La Prensa. He showed talent in journalism that quickly led him to becoming a writer and an editor. At the age of sixteen, he was already showing an interest in socialism. Eventually, Mariátegui founded two  short-lived pro-labor newspapers. In 1919, Mariátegui not only supported the demands of workers and students, but grew critical of the Peruvian President Leguia, who dissolved the congress and became dictator. The government closed down the critical papers, and exiled Mariategui to Europe as an “information agent.”


Mariátegui stayed in Europe from 1919-23, the experience helped him to mature as a Marxist. He lived primarily in France and Italy, encountering a number of socialists and intellectuals such as Antonio Gramsci, Benedetto Croce, Romain Rolland, Henri Barbusse. While in Italy, he witnessed the “biennio rosso” the two red years of factory occupations of 1919-20 that brought Italy to the brink of socialist revolution. Mariátegui was present at the foundation of the Italian Communist Party in 1921 at the famous Livorono congress. He also met an Italian woman, whom he married and bore him four sons. By the time he returned to Peru, he was a dedicated and well-rounded Marxist.


While in Peru, Mariátegui conducted an amazing array of political work. He lectured to workers at the Universidad Popular González Prada. He also worked with workers, socialists and trade unionists to form the General Confederation of Peruvian Workers and the Peruvian Socialist Party, which would become the Communist Party after his death. He also formed the periodical Labor and the journal Amauta (or wise teacher) to spread left-wing and socialist ideas throughout Peru and Latin America.

He also wrote three books during his lifetime. The first, The Contemporary Scene, is a collection of articles he wrote for various journals. The second and his most famous work, Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality, an original and creative application of Marxist analysis to Peru, highlighting the importance of the indigenous for revolution, along with penetrating insights on history, culture, and education. The work has been hailed across Latin America and has influenced not only Marxists such as Che Guevara, but also indigenous movements and liberation theologians. And his last published work, which is the most relevant for our purposes was The Defense of Marxism (published posthumously), a critique of revisionism and a defense of revolutionary Marxism from a Leninist perspective. Mariátegui's writing is not objective, but fiercely partisan: “Once again I repeat that I am not an impartial, objective critic. My judgments are nourished by my ideals, my sentiments, my passions. I have an avowed and resolute ambition: to assist in the creation of Peruvian socialism.” [31] Unfortunately, due to declining health, Mariátegui passed away on April 16, 1930, at the age of thirty-six.


It is in The Defense of Marxism that Mariátegui most clearly sets forth his non-dogmatic and anti-deterministic approach to Marxism, and discusses the importance of myths, ethics and symbols (drawing heavily on Sorel). Unlike Sorel, Mariátegui stresses the importance of Marxist theory, stating that “Now more than ever, the proletariat needs to know what is going on in the world.” [32] And for him, the only theory that can provide guidance for the proletariat is Marxism: “Socialism, beginning with Marx, appeared as the conception of a new class, as a theory and movement that had nothing in common with the romanticism of those who repudiated the work of capitalism as an abomination.” [33] For Mariátegui, a Marxist view provided not only clarity on the goal, but it served as a guide for revolutionary political action to get there.


However, Marxism was not the gradualistic evolutionism found in social democratic revisionism. Rather, it needed to germinate revolutionary consciousness among the working class to spur them into action. "Marxism, where it has shown itself to be revolutionary - that is to say where it has been Marxism — has never obeyed a passive and rigid determinism." [34] Mariátegui argued that capitalism would not topple on its own, but it would take conscious effort by the exploited. Otherwise, there was no way out. More than that, Marx's critique remained valid so long as capitalism existed — it was in the continuing struggle to transform the world, whether in the mass actions of the proletariat or the construction of socialism that Marxist theory was continually renewed. Without that regenerative interaction of theory with practice, Marxism was doomed to whither and die. “Socialism or, rather, the struggle to transform the social order from capitalist to collectivist, keeps this critique alive, continues it, confirms it, corrects it. Any attempt to categorize it as a simple scientific theory is in vain since it works in history as the gospel and method of a mass movement.” [35]


Yet there are “Marxist” theories that claim to be pure and revolutionary, believing their interpretation of the “sacred texts” provides them with the one true road map to the future. When they see people on the barricades or a revolution igniting that breaks with their orthodox conceptions of how events are supposed to unfold, then to them such a revolution is like corrupted by the devil. They sprinkle the “holy water” of their chosen Marxist quotes to exorcise this demonic spirit of the unexpected revolution. It can't be allowed to spoil the “real revolution,” that they passionately await. Once the right chapter and verse have been uttered, then the appropriate penance is done. The revolution can be dismissed and the purists can go back to waiting. Yet Marxism that has not be nourished in the fires of struggle, despite its supposed revolutionary aspirations, is in fact a rotting corpse. As Mariategui saw it, the task of revolutionaries was to apply Marxism to the situation at hand in order to make a concrete investigation of Peru (and the wider world). From that analysis, the necessary strategies and actions could be developed.


Following Sorel, Mariátegui argued that it was imperative for the proletariat to make a revolution because bourgeois society was overcome by decadence. This could be seen in its art, literature, and intellectuals. Once the bourgeoisie was a young, heroic and rising class filled with vision and destiny, that had all changed. The modern bourgeoisie was a pale shadow compared to their Jacobin ancestors who had overthrown kings and founded Republics. Bourgeois society, with its productive powers, science and reason, now covered the world and dissolved the bonds of feudalism and religious faith. After the cataclysm of the first World War and Russian Revolution, Mariátegui drew the conclusion that “bourgeois civilization suffers from a lack of myth, of faith, of hope.” [36] Yet in place of these overthrown altars, there was nothing to replace it with.

Mariátegui believed that science and reason were inadequate substitutes for the old myths of religion: “Neither Reason nor Science can meet the need of the infinite that exists in man. Reason itself has been challenged, demonstrating to humanity that it is not enough.” [37]


Reason and science could only be taken so far. They could not fill the gap in the human psyche in the same way myth could. “Only Myth possesses the precious virtue of satisfying its deepest self.” [38] Bourgeois civilization ripped away the holy and the sacred, turning humanity into atomized individuals governed by the faceless market with its lust for unceasing profit. Bourgeois culture is overwhelmingly permeated by chauvinism, mediocrity, racism, sexism, and selfishness. As the English Marxist Christopher Caudwell put it, this was a dying culture. The end result of this is humanity was reduced to talking tools on an assembly line or as soldiers to be slaughtered en masse in trench warfare in order to determine which vampires would rule colonial slaves. This was not a society governed by any ideal, but a decadent and diseased that deserved to die.


So what should replace the bourgeois world lacking in myths? For Mariátegui, man “is a metaphysical animal. He does not live productively without a metaphysical conception of life. Myth moves man in history. Without myth, the history of humanity has no sense of history.” [39] It could only be a new myth that could replace the fallen idols of the bourgeoisie. That new myth was that of communist revolution. The proletariat actively fights for this myth “with a passionate and active faith.” [40] In contrast to capitalism, which had nothing to offer, Mariátegui claimed that “the proletariat affirms.” [41]


In order for the proletariat to achieve heroic deeds, a transformation is needed in their consciousness. The proletariat can not be satisfied with a bigger piece of the pie or to accept the way the world is. Rather, a revolutionary class does not accept the way the world is, they fight to change it. To that end, workers needed to overcome “the anarchoid, individualistic, egoistic spirit, which besides being profoundly antisocial, does not constitute anything but the exacerbation and degeneration of the old bourgeois liberalism; the second thing that must be overcome is the spirit of corporatism, of a trade, of job category.” [42] For class consciousness to truly develop and mature, it was imperative for workers to look beyond their immediate horizons and particular trades to see the common position they share with their fellow workers across the world. Even more than that, communist consciousness had to embrace Lenin's ideal of the tribune of the people, who is “able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects.” [43] This entails solidarity by revolutionaries in France, Britain or the United States, with national liberation movements in the colonies, even if they are seen as “traitors” by their countrymen. Such treason is loyalty to the revolution and humanity. For the tribune of the people, the struggle for women's rights, anti-racism, or against homophobia are not “distractions” or “divisive,” but had to be taken up as part of the common struggle for liberation.


Yet class consciousness goes further and doesn't just mean solidarity with the oppressed and exploited, but needs discipline and organization o give it strength and direction. “I want to say to you that it is necessary to give the vanguard proletariat, along with a realist sense of history, a heroic will for creation and implementation. The desire for betterment, the appetite for well-being, are not enough.” [44] When the proletariat is fired by the vision of a new society, they will know that it won't come down from the skies due to the inexorable development of “economic laws,” but through organization and active struggle. This struggle entails a vanguard infused with the “myth” of a new egalitarian society freed of exploitation and oppression. It is that ideal, not the texts of Marxist theory or science, that allows revolutionaries to endure prison, man the barricades, sing songs, and march together against impossible odds. In pursuit of that myth, the word “comrade” becomes more than a word, solidarity becomes concrete, and the lyrics the “Internationale” are ideals to be achieved. "The strength of revolutionaries is not in their science; it is in their faith, in their passion, in their will. It is a religious, mystical, spiritual force. It is the force of myth." [45]


Ultimately, the proletariat is not struggling for a myth, but to create a new and superior civilization. As Mariátegui said, “we do not wish that Socialism in America be a tracing and a copy. It must be a heroic creation.” [46] This heroism means the proletariat had to become aware of their historic mission, shake off their subservience to the ruling class, take the destiny of humanity firmly into their hands and to construct socialism. “In the class struggle, where all the sublime and heroic elements of its ascent reside, the proletariat must elevate itself to a “producers’ morality,” quite distant and distinct from the “slave morality” that its gratuitous professors of morals, horrified by its materialism, officiously attempt to provide. A new civilization cannot arise from a sad and humiliated world of miserable helots with no greater merits or faculties than their servility and misery.” [47]


Yet reformists argue that such a vision is utopian since the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist state will inevitably bring disruption to production, massive upheavals, and that socialism will begin at a lower productive level than bourgeois society. Arguably, Mariátegui would accept this since “revolutionaries from all parts of the world must choose between being the victims of violence or using it.” [48] It is only natural that a revolution will disrupt things. What else is to be expected?

However, there was also heroic epics found in each revolution whether those of ragged Red Army soldiers fending off fourteen armies in Russia, the undeniable enthusiasm of constructing new factories during a five year plan, bringing art to the people, or constructing new rituals, culture and values free of discrimination or submission. All of these deeds may take place in ruins, but a new socialist world will rise in its place, to serve the interests of redeemed humanity. Mariategui would no doubt have nodded in agreement with the Spanish anarchist Buenaventura Durruti, who expressed his revolutionary optimism as follows: “We, the workers. We can build others to take their place. And better ones. We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth; there is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world here, in our hearts. That world is growing in this minute.” [49]


For Mariátegui, as opposed to Sorel, myths did not substitute Marxist theory and analysis, but were a necessary supplement to it. While the revolutionary proletariat needed to know the world in order to change it, this was not enough. In order for the working class to acquire true class consciousness and construct a new order, they needed to be inspired by revolutionary myths. Myths would raise the proletariat to a higher conception of life and give it the required faith to face the impossible odds and harsh ordeals that awaited them. Yet Mariátegui argued that the power of revolutionary myths was not just faith in a distant ideal, but in enabling the masses to turn the “myth” of communism into actuality.


IV. Myths of the Movement[50]


Despite the scientific and secular claims of Marxism, socialism, and communism, our movements are not immune from the power of myths, symbols, and rituals. Myths and “false consciousness” have a material basis of existence that needs to be recognized. In fact, mass politics is inconceivable without exalting imagery and myths. Socialist politics can not be conducted solely by rationally combating “false consciousness” in people's heads by explaining the labor theory of value or the relation between base and superstructure (although theory is definitely needed) or by selling newspapers. The politics of socialism and communism operates at multiple levels, one being to rationally challenge incorrect ideas, while others involve the symbolic and the mythical.


Even in the most secular and rationalistic communist movements, where it is assumed that priests tricked and manipulated people, elements of the mythical and the symbolic played a great role. Take the example of Blanquist communists in France during the 19th century who were led the insurrectionist Louis-Auguste Blanqui. Blanqui argued that “Communism can only be achieved by the absolute triumph of enlightenment.” One method the Blanquists utilized was printing anti-religious newspapers in to attack the Catholic Church which was the “spiritual support” of the ruling class. Doing so they believed would awaken the people. What the Blanquists ultimately believed was needed for the revolution to triumph was an organized conspiracy led by an enlightened elite, not reliance upon the mass of workers to revolt which they believed was impossible because they were under the influence of priests and the ruling class. Once the Blanquist coup succeeded in overthrowing the old order, they would institute an “enlightened dictatorship” that would undertake the pedagogical task of educating the people in secular and republican values.


Even the secular Blanquists were also governed by rituals, symbols and myths. When a member joined the secret society, they took part in an elaborate initiation ceremony where they were blindfolded and had to swear eternal hatred to aristocrats and kings, and to fight for the republic. Failure to abide by this oath was punishable by death. The Blanquist initiation rites were not invented by them, but copied from other secular movements such as the Masons and the Carbonari. Initiation into the revolutionary conspiracy was thus nearly a sacred act like being confirmed in the Catholic Church.


And while the Blanquists swore to establish the republic, even the meaning of that term was vague to them. Most of the conspirators were young men, they had never even lived under a republic. The “Republic” was a myth and an ideal, which had been transmitted to them through word of mouth from older men, from reading history or the speeches of Robespierre. Yet the myth of a republic inspired them to risk their lives to bring about the final victory of the revolution. Furthermore, the name of Blanqui was also a symbol and a myth not just to the conspirators, but to the workers of France. Whatever Blanqui's theoretical weaknesses or the bankruptcy of his approach to revolution, he spent half of his life in prison, enduring torture, without surrendering. To millions, he represented resistance to oppression and the communist ideal. As Alain Badiou argues, while emancipatory politics is “essentially the politics of the anonymous masses,” it is through proper names such as those of Blanqui (or Che and Lenin) that “the ordinary individual discovers glorious, distinctive individuals as the mediation for his or her own individuality, as the proof that he or she can force its finitude. The anonymous action of millions of militants, rebels, fighters, unrepresentable as such, is combined and counted as one in the simple, powerful symbol of the proper name.” [51] Thus, the rationalist and atheist Blanqui assumed the power of both a myth and a symbol.


And just as like religions, the labor, anarchist, socialist and communist movements have fashioned their own art, symbols, education, and provide a sense of community. Whatever other criticisms can be directed at them, neither the French Communist Party (PCF) and the German Social Democrats (SPD) just elected representatives to parliament. Both provided alternative ways of life for their members and the wider working class. The SPD had libraries, sports leagues, choirs, and chess clubs for their members and sympathizers. Even if a worker was not a member of either the PCF or the SPD, they could find a sense of community and reinforcement for their shared values of working class struggle and socialism within the broader subculture that the parties fostered. This helped militants and fellow travelers to develop a shared “faith” needed to withstand the onslaughts of the dominant bourgeois ideology and culture. Party militants and sympathizers may not be able to refute the arguments of bourgeois ideologists, but once they were convinced of socialism and had that belief reinforced by their shared myths, rituals, and symbols found within proletarian struggle and culture fostered by the party, then their conviction becomes unbreakable. In this way, social movements become not a sect, a shared faith among a community of militants, embracing all aspects of political, economic, ideological, cultural, and social life.


Movements also develop their own aesthetics and manner of dress. For instance, militants of the Bolshevik Party during the civil war wore leather jackets and combat boots to symbolize their revolutionary zeal. The Bolsheviks also embraced the artistic avant garde, as can be seen in the symbolic image of the “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge” or the emblem of the hammer and sickle that are powerful representations to convey the values of the revolutionary cause to communists, artists and workers. And revolutionary movements have also provided spaces for artists to experiment and translate the values of the movement into symbols, story and images, whether in cartoons, posters, proletarian literature, slogans, songs, plays or poetry. Yet the aesthetic of each movement is unique and time specific. For instance, even though both conveyed a radical aesthetic, the beret and guns of the Black Panthers was far different than the long beards of German radicals in the 1840s.


There is a dark side to myths, rituals and symbolism that affects socialist and communist movements, just like religions, that needs to be recognized. The PCF was said to be, not without justification, the secular equivalent to the Catholic Church: with their own dogma, orthodoxies, saints, martyrs, heresies, and demons. Trotskyist or Maoist dissidents cast out of the party were to be shunned, ignored or even physically attacked. Militants were encouraged not to question the socialist credentials of the Soviet Union or its many abrupt turns in foreign policy, since this could demoralize workers or cause them to lose faith in the revolutionary cause. Intellectuals in the PCF such as Louis Althusser would raise their criticisms of the party in deliberately obscure or oblique language or keep silent, because otherwise they would be expelled and lose any chance to partake in the great historical mission (supposedly embodied by the party). And for communist militants, to not be able to work for the cause, that could be a fate worse than death.


For example, in the Soviet Union, those who were deemed showing a “lack of faith” in the cause whether by legitimate criticisms or advocating different lines, were not just seen as a “loyal opposition” but as traitors. To cast doubt on the leadership or to question it, was to be in league in alien class forces or fascism. Indeed, the great purge trials of the 1930s, despite the trappings of legality and jurisprudence (despite lacking physical proof or corroboration) were conducted more like the Catholic inquisition than a court of law where heresy was synonymous with treason and unbelief. Ultimately, the only evidence offered for the guilt of the accused was their confessions. The similarities between the methods of Soviet trials and the Inquisition was pointed out by one of the accused, Nikolai Bukharin who said: “The confession of the accused is not essential. The confession of the accused is a medieval principle of jurisprudence.” [52]


V. Conclusion


Despite the dogmas and inquisitions that an embrace of myths can encourage in radical movements, it is impossible to imagine politics without them. There is a material existence to myths that rationalist theories of “false consciousness” don't recognize. The myths, symbols and rituals of radicalism remain a part of how we remember our past, imagine our future, forge a common bond of solidarity so that we know how to live and how to die for the communist ideal.




[1] Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth (New York: Anchor Books, 1991), 38.
[2] Ibid. 39.

[3] Louis Althusser, On the Reproduction of Capitalism (New York: Verso Books, 2014), 156.

[4] Ibid. 259.

[5] Ibid. 251.

[6] Ibid. 220.

[7] Campbell 1991, 14.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid. 39.

[10] Jose Carlos Mariátegui, “Henri de Man and the Crisis of Marxism” in Jose Carlos Mariátegui: An Anthology, ed. Harry E. Vanden and Marc Becker (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011), 189.

[11] Mariategui, “Man and Myth,” in Mariategui: An Anthology 2011, 387.

[12] Zeev Sternhell, The Birth of Fascist Ideology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 40.

[13] See John L. Stanley ed., From Georges Sorel: Essays in Socialism and Philosophy (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2002) 30-1 and 154-5; and Sternhell 1994, 21, 39-40.

[14] “The Ethics of Socialism” in From Georges Sorel 2002, 106; Sternhell 1994, 43-46.

[15] Quoted in Sternhell 1994, 42.

[16] See From Georges Sorel 2002, 10.

[17] Georges Sorel, Reflections on Violence (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 34.

[18] See my “How anarchists, syndicalists, socialists and IWW militants were drawn to Bolshevism: four case studies,” LINKS International Journal of Socialist Renewal.

[19] Sorel 2004, 112 and 243.

[20] Ibid. 250 and 238.

[21] Ibid. 249 and 161.

[22] Ibid. 75 and 72.

[23] Ibid. 110.

[24] Ibid. 30.

[25] Ibid. 29.

[26] Ibid. 28.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid. 29.

[29] Ibid. 30.

[30] See How anarchists, syndicalists, socialists and IWW militants were drawn to Bolshevism: four case studies” (note 18).

[31] Jose Carlos Mariátegui, Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971), xxxiv.

[32] Mariátegui, “The World Crisis and the Peruvian Proletariat,” in Mariátegui: An Anthology 2011, 296.

[33] Mariátegui, “The Heroic and Creative Sense of Socialism,” in Mariátegui: An Anthology 2011, 212.

[34] Mariátegui, “Marxist Determinism,” in Mariátegui: An Anthology 2011, 208.

[35] Mariátegui, “Modern Philosophy and Marxism,” in Mariátegui: An Anthology 2011, 194. [36] Mariátegui, “Man and Myth,” in Mariátegui: An Anthology 2011, 383.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid. 384.

[40] Ibid. 387.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Mariátegui, “Message to the Workers' Congress,” in Mariátegui: An Anthology 2011, 181.

[43] V. I. Lenin, “What is to be Done?” Marxists Internet Archive.

[44] Mariátegui, “Message to the Workers' Congress,” in Mariátegui: An Anthology 2011, 185.

[45] Mariátegui, “Man and Myth,” in Mariátegui: An Anthology 2011, 387.

[46] Mariátegui, “Anniversary and a Balance Sense,” in Mariátegui: An Anthology 2011, 130.

[47] Mariátegui, “Heroic and Creative Sense of Socialism,” in Mariátegui: An Anthology 2011, 212-3.

[48] Jose Carlos Mariategui, “Ethics and Socialism,” Marxists Internet Archive.

[49] Abel Paz, Durruti in the Spanish Revolution (Oakland: AK Press, 2007), 478.

[50] I have also drawn from the following two essays by Mike Ely: Sing our own song: “Igniting a communist aesthetic renaissance,” Kasama Project and “Communist foreshocks: Words, ritual and symbols,” Kasama Project.

[51] Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis (New York: Verso, 2010), 249-50. Robert C. Tucker and Stephen Cohen, ed. The Great Purge Trial (New York: Grosset and Dunlap Publishers,1965), 667.  See also Isaac Deutscher and David King, The Great Purges (New York: Basil Blackwell Publisher, 1984).


Of Icons, Myths and Doug Enaa Greene

Douglas Enaa Greene ( has written a wide-ranging, learned and challenging essay on the role of the myth and revolution, an essay illustrated by that icon (see above) of revolutionary internationalism, Che Guevara. Greene’s introductory paragraph embraces the Revolutionary Myth:
According to legend, the last words of Che Guevara before his execution were ‘I know you've come to kill me. Shoot coward, you are only going to kill a man.’ What Che meant here was that the cause of revolution would live on despite his death. Whether or not the myth is true, the meaning behind it has inspired revolutionaries throughout the world. In certain ways, the myth surrounding Che Guevara has been just as important as the truth. In fact, myths provide a crucial underpinning to how ideology and society is able to function. Myths play a major role not only in society, but in radical political movements, as was recognized by the French syndicalist Georges Sorel and the Peruvian communist Jose Carlos Mariátegui. And despite the scientific pretensions of much of the left, myths also supply inspiration, passion and faith to militants in the course of struggle. (My italics. PW]
Now, I happen to have written on two of these revolutionary icons, Mariátegui (1894–1930) and Che (1928-1967), if not Sorel or others discussed by Greene. In the case of both Mariátegui and Che this was in relation to their internationalism. And in both cases I made an effort, precisely, to critique their own myth-making and/or others’ mythologisation of their roles. I do not pretend to have captured these roles, but, I would like to hope to have helped to de-mythologise them.
I appreciate the role that myth has played ‘not only in society, but in radical political movements’. But then there is the essential ambiguity of myth-making recognised by Greene himself. And, given the endless global variety of past, present - and hypothetical future - myths in ‘radical political movements’, I can 1) find a place for them within the ‘global justice and solidarity movement’ but cannot 2) see them as productive of the non-particularistic and dialogical universalism toward which I am oriented. I grew up with Man Against Myth by one-time Communist and US witch-hunt resister Barrows Dunham. And I had myself to go through a prolonged struggle against Soviet (and other Marxist) icons and myth-making. Note what Greene says:
There is a dark side to myths, rituals and symbols that affects socialist and communist movements, just like religions, that needs to be recognised. The PCF (French Communist Party. PW] was said to be…the secular equivalent of the Catholic Church: with their own dogma, orthodoxies, saints, martyrs, heresies, and demons. […] For example, in the Soviet Union, those who were deemed showing ‘lack of faith’…were not just seen as a ‘loyal opposition’ but as traitors.
So it does seem to me that the only principled and effective appeal against such ‘bad’ myths is not a ‘good’ myth but an appeal to the Enlightenment principle of reason, stripped of its instrumental rationality and particularistic universalism, qualified by the practice of openness to and respectful dialogue with other civilisations/cosmologies. So how did I respond to my iconised and mythologised internationalists?
With Mariátegui (henceforth JCM), it was a matter of translating and publicising his essay on ‘Internationalism and Nationalism’ (1923), particularly for its unique and brilliant insight that ‘communication is the nervous system of internationalism and solidarity’. My critique (Waterman 2005: Part 3) was for this essay’s political-economic determinism, its assumption 1) that capitalist industrialisation was inevitably producing in the proletariat the privileged revolutionary subject and 2) that this proletariat was also the privileged bearer of internationalism. In the case of Che (whose poster we had up at home for a decade or more) it was a matter of recognising his iconic status but arguing that he was more of a revolutionary nationalist (a serial-nationalist?), on the model of Giuseppe Garibaldi or Simón Bolívar, if with a distinct, 19th-20th century Marxist aspect. A book on Che, subtitled ‘Writings on Internationalism’ (Guevara 1989) reveals that this was a subject which he never theorised or conceptualised. (For my own brief take on Che, see Appendix 1). His famous call, at a state-sponsored conference of the Tricontinental for ‘two, three or many Vietnams’ is one from which the newest emancipatory global social movements would react with shock, if not with horror. Whilst Che would have been aware of the cost to the Vietnamese of that war, he would surely have reacted, with at least shock, to what a united Vietnam has become.
The point of both critiques was not to rubbish these heroic revolutionaries but to consider them historically and to see what we might learn from their lives today. But why does Greene, a mythologiser of the Russian Revolution and the early Soviet state, a convinced Communist of the Leninist tradition, feel the need for the revolutionary myth?
After a consideration of the the social role played by myth throughout history, and the academic literature on its various functions, he declares that
[E]ven though socialism is founded on materialistic and scientific principles, myths, symbols and rituals play key roles in teaching militants how to life, fight and die as comrades for the communist ideal.
In considering internationalists and internationalisms, I would be inclined to distinguish symbol and ritual from myth, and particularly from mythologisation. But, then, I am also more interested in seeing how internationalist militants live, fight and survive. And in how they construct their own utopias rather than devote themselves to a ‘communist ideal’ that seems to exist before they ‘play key roles’ in its realisation.
Perhaps Greene needs the myth of revolution because the reality of the Russian one that he presents, in primarily positive terms, is, he admits, today ‘in ruins’. ‘[B]ut’, he adds ‘a new socialist world will rise in its place, to serve the interests of a redeemed humanity’. He is, though only in his Conclusion, however, cognisant of
the dogmas and inquisitions that an embrace of myths can encourage in radical movements.
If they are so ambiguous, should we not try to do without them? It seems that Greene’s embrace and recommendation of revolutionary myth-making is a necessary complement to his political-economic determinism, to the shortcomings of what we have to call ‘actually non-existing socialism’.
Extracted from my ‘Of Icons, of Myths, and of Internationalists’. For a documented draft on which comments would be welcome and acknowledged, see here:

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