You say you want a revolution

Woody Allan, in his indispensable Brief Yet Helpful Guide To Civil Disobedience gives the following advice to would-be revolutionaries:

In perpetrating a revolution, there are two requirements: someone or something to revolt against and someone to actually show up and do the revolting.

In the case of Second Life it’s fairly clear what needs to be overthrown – the tyrannical rule of the Linden clique – but much less obvious who might be capable of carrying this out.

In the real world much ink has been spilt – indeed much blood has been spilt – in the debate over the revolutionary potential of the various social classes. Any account of this I give here is bound to be hopelessly reductive, but I’ll try to summarise.

The bourgeoisie may initially take the lead in a movement for democratic change, either in the context of a struggle against feudal social relations – the prime example being the French Revolution – or, more relevant to the modern world, in the fight for national self-determination of colonies dominated by foreign imperialism. However history has shown that, once in power, the bourgeoisie will not carry through the revolution to its conclusion, for fear that extending full democratic rights to the masses will undermine the dominance of capital, but will instead come to an accommodation with the old regime that maintains the conditions for capitalist class rule.

A classic Marxist position would hold that the only class with true revolutionary potential is the proletariat. This is uncontroversial in advanced capitalist countries like Britain or Germany, but less clear in places where the proletariat is relatively small in comparison to the peasantry – pre-revolutionary Russia for example, or economically underdeveloped colonies.

This has led to the idea that communists should support the bourgeois revolution, then wait until the development of capitalism has produced a numerically significant working class, before moving on to the next step of proletarian revolution. Counterposed to this stagist position is the concept of Permanent Revolution, summed up by Trotsky thus:

The perspective of permanent revolution may be summarized in the following way: the complete victory of the democratic revolution in Russia is conceivable only in the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, leaning on the peasantry. The dictatorship of the proletariat, which would inevitably place on the order of the day not only democratic but socialistic tasks as well, would at the same time give a powerful impetus to the international socialist revolution. Only the victory of the proletariat in the West could protect Russia from bourgeois resoration and assure it the possibility of rounding out the establishment of socialism.

The important points here are that the proletarian party must maintain its organisational independence, and be at the head of the revolutionary movement, and that the survival of the socialist revolution in a country where capitalism is relatively underdeveloped is dependent on successful revolutions in more advanced countries.

In the Russian context the latter hope receded after the defeat of the German revolution in 1923. In the wake of this the Russian Communist Party under Stalin came to follow a position of “socialism in one country”, and the Comintern accordingly adopted a more stagist outlook, notably in China. The Communist Party of China was encouraged to cooperate with the nationalist Kuomintang, a policy which ended badly for the CPC with the Shanghai massacre of 1927. Following this setback Mao developed the the view that the peasantry, as opposed to the urban proletariat, was key to the revolutionary struggle, a perspective which has been hugely influential in anti-colonialist movements in the developing world ever since, and which does have a good record in military terms, though perhaps less so in advancing the socialist development of post-revolutionary societies.

Does any of this illuminate the situation in Second Life? Not exactly, since the class identity of SL residents will depend on their real life situation, rather than their status on the grid. By this reckoning I would think that most residents would be proletarians, though I’m sure that not many would consciously see themselves as such. However I think that it is possible to broadly map out virtual class divisions in SL, and I would propose the following taxonomy:

  • Feudal aristocracy –  The Lindens
  • Bourgeoisie – Business-owning premium account residents
  • Proletariat – Non-business-owning premium account residents
  • Peasantry – Basic account residents

The latter three classes would clearly benefit from an increase in SL democracy, but, in line with the real world experience, I think that only the virtual proletariat are likely to see the process through. The entrepreneurial classes are likely to want to limit any reform that may threaten their economic interests, and while the peasants might provide the numbers, they lack the developed class consciousness required to give leadership to a revolutionary movement.

So in practical terms I think we need to agitate widely around democratic demands, work with the bourgeoisie as far as they will go while maintaining an independent proletarian party, and providing leadership to the peasantry. The immediate task is to work out how to start spreading these ideas around the grid. I’ve a few thoughts on that, which I’ll outline next time.

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