OceanGate and “Revolutionary Adventurism”

Justin Aukema

The sinking of the OceanGate submarine killing its five passengers onboard was hailed as a victory for the working class among some internet “radicals.” The reasoning went something like this: billionaires exploit the working class; they are thus “bad” and deserve no sympathy. The same online Leftists were of course less forthcoming when it came to demonstrably proving how the mass of the working class’s material conditions changed even one iota thanks to the submarine’s disappearance. Some proponents of the idea attempted to cover for their lack of evidence by claiming that it was not, in fact, a material victory after all, but rather was simply a “cathartic” one. The idea was, apparently, that the deaths of a few rich men would embolden the greater mass of downtrodden ones. Toward what purpose, however, we are not informed. It certainly doesn’t seem to be mass popular organizing, and I am unaware of any new large worker groups that emerged out of OceanGate’s wake. Perhaps, therefore, for the online-Twitter Left, there is no actual end goal. Instead, there is only an endless cycle of contrived media spectacles in lieu of real class struggle and in which the concrete victories of the working class are entirely replaced by the other side’s symbolic losses.

If this is the case, then OceanGate is just the latest iteration of what over a century ago Lenin already identified as “revolutionary adventurism,” where anarchic spectacle and terrorism (including the murder or deaths of the rich) take the place of organized class struggle and popular uprising. Lenin condemned this kind of adventurism as perpetuating the capitalist cult of the individual and for damaging the fight for communism. That’s because, like Marx, he knew that capitalism is a social relationship and not just a person or a thing. Lenin’s message eventually won out in early twentieth-century Russia. But this hasn’t stopped a new generation of online Leftists from glorifying revolutionary escapades. Yet as history shows, such adventurism has, and always will, end in failure and chaos.

Just smoke and noise

Communism is about creating riches and wealth for all. But the Left’s frequent exhortations to “eat the rich” often give the opposite impression. The problem is that many from across the political spectrum mistakenly conflate the social relationship of capital with its fetishized form of money. This confusion further leads them to see wealth as the cause rather than the result of workers’ suffering and exploitation.

By contrast, Marx knew that capitalism is neither a thing nor a person. Instead, he explained, the individual capitalist was simply “capital personified and endowed with a consciousness and a will” (Capital V1, 254). By “personification” Marx did not mean that the individual capitalist actually embodied the entirety of capitalist social relations, but rather that the capitalist was no more than a representative acting on capital’s behalf. As Marx explained in the Preface to Capital,
individuals are dealt with here only in so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, the bearers [Träger] of particular class-relations and interests. My standpoint, from which the development of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history, can less than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he remains, socially speaking, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them (1982: 92).
In other words, Marx explicitly rejected bourgeois individualism and its focus on heroes and villains in favor of class-based social analysis. This demarcation was crucial since Marx knew that, from a strategic stand-point, the former was bound to fail. No amount of regime change would ever be enough by itself to alter existing social relations. And no singular heroic or spectacular deed could ever match the power of the organized proletariat.

The inefficacy of lone actions in this sense was also emphasized by Lenin. In 1902, he roundly condemned individual terrorist attacks on the rich as counterproductive and reactionary. Lenin’s main opponent in this regard was the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SRP) which advocated indiscriminate terrorist attacks on members of the ruling class. In Lenin’s view, such “revolutionary adventurism” was no more than sensationalist “noise” that diverted “attention from work among the masses.” The SRP’s predilection for terrorism, noted Lenin, showed not their commitment to the cause, but rather the opposite: just how far they had drifted and isolated themselves from the very class they claimed to represent.

For Lenin, individual and random acts of violence against the ruling class could never shift the balance of power in favor of workers and peasants as the SRP claimed. Rather, insofar as social relations remained the same, they would simply result in new rulers to take the place of the old ones. Moreover, he argued that such socialist terrorism in fact just served to alienate the working class further. The SRP claimed that, quote, “Each time a hero engages in single combat, this arouses in us all a spirit of struggle and courage.” But Lenin countered by writing,
​​we know from the past and see in the present that only new forms of the mass movement or the awakening of new sections of the masses to independent struggle really rouses a spirit of struggle and courage in all. Single combat however, inasmuch as it remains single combat [...], has the immediate effect of simply creating a short-lived sensation, while indirectly it even leads to apathy and passive waiting for the next bout.
Whereas the SRP asserted that random bombs and violence would tip the scales, Lenin famously contested that “without the working people all bombs are powerless” and that “shots fired by the ‘elusive individuals’ who are losing faith in the possibility of marching in formation and working hand in hand with the masses also end in smoke.”

An unheeded warning

Sadly, Lenin’s words were not fully heeded, and a legacy of revolutionary adventurism ensued. While the full history is too detailed to completely document here, some examples from my own field of study, modern Japanese history, are illustrative.

The greatest parallels can be drawn between today’s Twitter Left and the Japanese New Left of the 1960s and 70s. Although their tactics differ, they share much of the same worldview as well as a penchant for increasingly sensational actions. The post-Marxist Japanese New Left emphasized national liberation and identity issues in contrast to the class politics of the “old Left.” In this milieu, its member groups like the Red Army and the Anti-Japanese Front attacked the Japanese working class as “reactionary” beneficiaries of Japanese and American imperialism and instead posited marginalized groups and the lumpenproletariat as the new revolutionary subject. Their distance from traditional class politics also led them to adopt terrorist tactics, and, over a two-decade period, their members launched a series of bombing campaigns against police officers, government agencies, and various large companies. Perhaps the deadliest and most well-known of these was the August 1974 bombing of Mitsubishi Heavy which killed eight people and injured close to four-hundred. This, along with a sensational ten-day firefight between police and members of the United Red Army in 1972, the Asama Sansō Incident, alienated most average Japanese workers and caused untold damage to working class movements. It is no surprise therefore that the events directly preceded or coincided with successive neoliberal restructuring and the collapse of organized trade-unionism in the country.

Most historians would agree that the Japanese New Left’s highly unpopular revolutionary adventurism caused the movement to end in spectacular failure. But I would argue that while the group’s surviving members were forced into hiding, many of their ideas have become mainstream on much 21st century social media. Not only have segments of today’s Left abandoned class struggle in favor of the rhetoric of victimization and marginalization, but as the OceanGate saga shows, they also laud some of the same tactics, including the physical destruction of the rich.

The trend has only been encouraged by online platforms and mass-media which privilege spectacle and which reduce organized struggle to a hyper-individualized competition over clicks or likes. Although the real bombs of past radicals have today largely been replaced with the increasingly fantastic rhetoric of perennially online hammer-and-sickle accounts, the result is the same. Without the actual support of the working class, they’re nothing more than smoke in the wind.

Popular Posts