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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
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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