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OPINION: After Genoa: A Democratic Revolutionary Movement?

by Guy Berliner Saturday, Jul. 28, 2001 at 9:54 AM

After Genoa, all doubts should have vanished: We ARE living in revolutionary times. But where will that revolutionary potential lead, and what can and should we do about it?

If there were still any doubts in anyone's minds that we

find ourselves in revolutionary times, that there is afoot

in the world a movement for revolutionary, democratic

social change that represents, in the words of Susan

George, "the most beautiful hope in thirty years," the

hundreds of thousands of people in the streets of Genoa

should now have totally extinguished such doubts.

And yet, we are faced with the question, "Where to from

here?" Many possibilities compete for our attention. We

have a variety of tactics to choose from, of ideological

"wares" for sale. What points can unite us? What can we

say definitively about our strategies or tactics?

Each of these things warrants careful consideration:

Points of unity: what fundamental principles do we share?

Strategy: a long term plan of action.

Tactics: the particular short term strategems on the field

of battle, differing from one battle to another, that can

advance our strategy.

Our points of unity must inform both our strategy and

tactics. Here's a rough sketch of some things we might

agree on: That there is an elite clique in our society

that has seized inordinate control of almost every aspect

of our culture, our economy, and our politics, in our own

and many other countries. That the elites in different

countries, like in the feudal days of old, are incestuous

and bear more affinity to each other than to their own

countrymen. That the consequences of this are urgent and

dreadfully harmful for human wellbeing and ecological

survival. That the capitalist system of social relations

is deeply implicated in this state of affairs. That

"the system" is radically defective, does not and cannot

effectively represent the interests of the majority as it

claims to, and an effective democratic change must work

against the systemic dynamics that perpetuate injustices,

and that such change must of necessity be brought about by

a "force majeure" imposing itself from outside that system,

and cannot be wrought solely working within it.

These points more or less sum up much of radical politics

today. Unfortunately, we seldom get past the tedious

repetition of these points and this analysis. But this is

where the really challenging and important work ahead lies:

vision for the future, and strategy and tactics to get us

there. And this is where humility is called for.

I don't have much precise wisdom to offer anyone on these

matters. I'm as much at sea as anyone else once I get past

the analysis of what's wrong and start to talk about what

we can and should do about it. But I can think of at least

a few principles to guide us at this crucial task.

One thing I think we can agree on: A democratic revolution

must, by definition, engage the majority of people. It

must be "of, by, and for the people." If we radicals

talk in jargon, if our discourse becomes a closed little

universe for initiates only, then there's no hope of

such a discourse encouraging "the people" to become

the least bit interested in the struggle we advocate.

That includes this essay. Even here I have made little

attempt to carefully weigh my message so that it would be

radical, visionary, yet also highly accessible to anyone

not initiated to radical, visionary politics. I haven't

done it, not because it can't be done or isn't urgently

needed, but because I simply don't have that skill yet.

Another thing we can agree on, practically a mere corollary

to the last: we must not do anything that isolates us

from the majority of people. Why would we want to do that,

and who benefits from it? It has been said that the first

principle of the PR biz in defeating popular opposition

to ruling class prerogatives is: Isolate the radicals.

We must, on the contrary, do everything to enlarge our

movement to include the broadest participation of the

immense majority of people whose interests are disserved

by the current world system. Clearly nothing less than

such a massive participation -- greater than anything

heretofore -- can effectively confront and defeat the

forces arrayed against us.

I would maintain that this last point, in most cases,

is a strong, practical argument for nonviolence. One

of the surest ways for the powerful to isolate and

demonize their radical opponents is to brand them as

"violent," "irrational," and "lunatic." Having said this,

people everywhere understand that there is a place for

legitimate self defense. People everywhere will tend to

honor and identify with principled and disciplined self

defense. This requires much self discipline in resisting

provocation. If our actions are motivated mainly by anger,

this self discipline and restraint becomes difficult. This

brings to mind another point also raised by Susan George:

In Sun Tzu's _The Art of War_, the aspiring warrior is

urged not to do "that which would be most gratifying to you

in the moment," but always to do "that which your enemy

would least like you to do." And, as a practical point,

the scope for effective use of force in our movement

is highly limited, when the forces of repression are so

overwhelming and so exclusively at the disposal of our

opponents. To fail to acknowledge this and act on this

knowledge could be suicidal.

It should also be clear, that to the extent that our

movement is greatly enlarged, it will yet further

embolden those within it to take risks to bring about

change. People must, as a matter of survival, constantly

make a calculation, "Do the odds of this or that action

effectively serving the cause of freedom for us all,

outweigh the risks and costs to myself?" Few people

have any desire to be martyrs, especially for a hopeless

and ineffectual cause. But against this is balanced the

fact that militant action can also embolden others. We

cannot discourage everyone from taking on unusual risks,

because some of those who do so, and succeed, become heroic

examples that can advance our movement dramatically. And

in a cynical age, we need heroes, so there's nothing wrong

with that. It's a difficult problem fraught with danger,

and we should never encourage martyrdom or egomania of

any kind. And yet, we should recognize the fact that some

people will be deeply inspired in a spiritual way to take

unusual risks to advance our shared struggle.

Another point we ought to agree on: Different tactics and

methods of organization are necessary for different groups,

at different times and places.

I would argue that this militates strongly against the

philosophy of "vanguardism," the idea that a revolutionary

cadre should form a "party" and attempt to apply central

direction, organization, and discipline to the rest of

the movement.

Of what use would a revolution be that succeeded in

overthrowing one ruling clique, only to supplant it

with another? Every ruling group devises an ideological

justification for its dominance. History is littered with

revolutionary struggles that degenerated in just this way.

"Vanguardists" sometimes make cogent arguments that,

in the face of the overwhelming power of our opponents,

which they have gained as small but well organized

minorities, a similar level of organizational discipline

is called for on our part. This is "our only force

multiplier." (http://www.destroyimf.org). But while it

is true that organization is key to success in every

undertaking, particularly revolution, not one of us knows

the secret to organizing a democratic revolution. By

definition, such a thing must engage the energies of the

majority of people. A revolution organized by a group

operating on different principles than those of the new

society it professes to fight for, and led by different

people than the majority on whose behalf it claims to act,

is a practical impossibility.

Armies might conceivably fight to protect democratic

societies without themselves being organized in a

democratic fashion, but only if they are subservient to

an already existing democratically organized society. But

the army that must fight for the democratic revolution

we hope to bring about must be of an entirely different

sort than the conventional authoritarian one, since the

democratically organized society is what we are trying

to bring about in the first place (and since it doesn't

exist yet, an "undemocratic army" can't be subordinated

to it! --QED). An undemocratic "vanguard" can only bring

about an undemocratic state, since there's no mechanism

to hold it accountable, whereas a democratic society must

be self-actualizing, built from the beginning of the same

stuff as it consists of at the end.

This brings us back to strategy -- and the need for

humility. Since the democratic revolution that we are

working for is in some ways unprecedented, there are no

ready-made models at hand. Like any organism or ecological

system, it is a spontaneously emergent order. And there

is not a mind that can comprehend in its richness all the

wonders, all the interconnections between all the parts of

such a thing. Thus, in a certain sense, it is misleading

to speak of "strategy." As with the growth and development

of a seed or an embryo, it's not that there isn't an

intricate, spontaneous order that arises, seemingly as

if by some "plan." It's just that, while we can observe

this order, and sometimes even usefully intervene at some

points in it, we cannot plan it out in detail. No real

human society, no human language, indeed, no complex

phenomenon of any kind is every planned in this way.

Thus, we should reject the sclerotic ideological

straitjackets that have enjoyed too much prestige for

too long on the left. Our discourse and our methods of

organization ought to be both radical yet practical. We

should eschew jargon and dogma of every kind.

The great and fatal mistake of leftists inspired by Marx

and Engles was in thinking that, because one could make a

systematic analysis of the contradictions of capitalism,

that therefore one could devise a systematic method of

overthrowing capitalism and building a new society. It

wasn't utopianism that killed hope for a democratic

revolution, so much as the hubris of its planners.

Our challenge, then, is to imagine how a society

could operate with many autonomous organizations at

many levels, cooperating in a spontaneous, organic

democracy, with no one giving the rest orders and

expecting them to march in lockstep. This is the way

every actual organic being functions. And as we imagine

such spontaneous self ordering, we should look for

ways to participate in bringing it about here and now,

in our very movement. Fortunately, this is already in

fact happening, and it is precisely in this way that a

democratic revolution will be "built," and "built from the

beginning of the same stuff as it consists of at the end."

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Listed below are the 10 latest comments of 4 posted about this article.
These comments are anonymously submitted by the website visitors.
anarchist? peter kropotkin Thursday, Aug. 02, 2001 at 5:03 AM
who are you and what is this? vincent bevins Friday, Aug. 03, 2001 at 5:54 AM
Re: who are you and what is this? Guy Berliner Friday, Aug. 03, 2001 at 3:18 PM
technique for automatic cooperation Atrek Saturday, Aug. 04, 2001 at 12:07 AM
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