[This essay is part of the ZNet Classics series. Three times a week we will re-post an article that we think is of timeless importance. This one was first published May 1, 1997.]
How would a person in your school, workplace, or neighborhood saying "we need a revolution" or "I am a revolutionary" or "justice requires a revolution," sound to those listening? Quaint? Anachronistic? Sectarian? Juvenile? Laughable?
I just turned fifty. I remember being twenty and particularly the hostile feelings I then had about most older folks. It wasn’t their greater experience, or relative lack of energy, or anything else directly attributable to additional years that I minded. What outraged me was their dismissal of what they smirkingly called "youthful idealism and naivete." They didn’t critique my views of society. They didn’t assess my hopes for something better or question my commitment to work for it. They waved all this aside like one might the muttering of a psychotic paranoid person. You’ll grow out of it like we did, they intoned. You are young and unlearned and don’t realize that social gains can only be modest, regardless of right and wrong, they preached. You are melodramatic, self destructive, egocentric and throwing your future away, they squeaked. They didn’t try to add coherence, clarity, and reach to my social picture, but only ridiculed it to get me off the activist road I was on.
I also remember how my generation was going to be different. Nothing would ever disrupt our honest perception of the conditions of society, of ourselves, and of our fellow citizens. Nothing would reverse our values or commitments. We were 1968 revolutionaries, and certainly the simple fact of getting older, year after year, was not going to turn us around. Politics was in command and it would not be supplanted by the habits of compromised lives. No ticky tack for us. No gray flannel death. We would not become clowns on commission. We would never walk down ancient empty streets.
When I was twenty, like all my friends, I didn’t think youthful vim, vigor, outrage, and passion, were a phase to be transcended. If these aspects of our lives receded as we advanced in years, we all challenged ourselves, it would not be owing to biological clocks, but to the wear and tear of oppressive institutions. If we lost our commitment, we went on record as believing, it would not be a sign of increased wisdom, insight, or practicality, but that we succumbed to social battering and self-serving compromise. And we knew this could not happen. Eyes in our pockets, nose on the ground? My generation? No way.
In our best moments we all agreed that learning to transcend comfortable fantasies would be progress. That developing a sense of timing and proportion would be progress. That developing tolerance for things not previously understood would be progress. Even that learning to empathize with the "maturity" we hated in our elders once we understood the powerful pressures that cause it, would be progress. But we also knew that becoming what we rejected—would not be progress. No Pied Piper prison for us. We knew what we wanted. We would live entirely for it.
Well, truth to tell, wise and prescient as we were at the time, it seems that my generation, thirty years older, was not much better at avoiding getting turned around than the generations that preceded us. Someplace along the path we stopped being born, and now we are busy dying.
It may happen that we look ourselves in the mirror and see someone old in spirit because over the years we have understandably bent ourselves to amicably survive in hostile circumstances without constantly contesting nearly everyone we encountered and suffering loneliness as a result. Or we may have lost our edge because we have rationalized crossing to the side of cursed money. But however understandable or craven, our loss of fight is a sign of collapse, not maturity.
No doubt this screed isn’t particularly relevant to most Z readers but I think the message has merit: Enough rationalization from my generation, please. Don’t be liberal about this, to use a phrase from our past. Ask your old friends (or parents) who were revolutionary in their values and ideas and commitments at twenty and who aren’t now, can you honestly say that your current self could out reason, or hold his or her head higher, or be more proud, or is accomplishing more for others, or is more admirable, then your younger version? In such cases, I suspect that what has been lost outweighs what has been gained. More, a sense of reality, of proportion, and a degree of tolerance and of empathy could all have been gained while maintaining our revolutionary mindset and commitments. Indeed, without adding the former, the latter are worth less.
My generation—or the part I am addressing—was revolutionary for some very simple reasons. If those reasons were ill-conceived and if there have been no substitute reasons learned later to maintain the old stance, then, yes, I agree, we should all have mellowed. Flailing at windmills or false obstacles isn’t admirable. But if our reasons for being revolutionary were just and compelling thirty years ago, and if since then the rise and fall of social well being have only added more reasons for revolutionary commitment, then we should still be who we were, only more so.
In 1968 the Weatherman had a succinct credo: Country Sucks, Kick Ass. This, I admit, wasn’t an intellectual meal to last a lifetime. But for most folks who were committed thirty years ago, even those in outrageously immature organizations, the motivations and insights that led us to call ourselves revolutionary were sound.
We realized, with various degrees of emphasis on this or that part of life, that we live in a society whose defining institutions are woefully inadequate. When our basic institutions work at their absolute best and as rhetoric says they ought to, alienation, disenfranchisement, inequality, misdirection of energies, violation of earth and sky, denial of human potential, and indignity are all endemic. And when the basic institutions stray from rhetorical attributes and radiate their true colors, which is almost all the time, the horrendous results include gross poverty, rampant anti-social violence, vile racism, epidemic rape, sweat shops, international starvation, and death squads.
When we were younger the institutions we found culpable for all these ills were private ownership of the means of production, market competition, the patriarchal nuclear family, coercive hierarchical government, and racism and bigotry in all their forms. We understood that mitigating the pains these institutions produce by winning immediate limited reforms was a very positive immediate aim. But we also understood that the ultimate goal for anyone truly concerned about human well being had to be attaining new institutions that could facilitate societal production, consumption, allocation, procreation, socialization, celebration, and administration not for the benefit of a few, but consistent with the most humane and just aspirations of the many.
We believed in human potential. We foresaw real people, like ourselves, conducting themselves socially and humanely if only they could be born and live in environments that didn’t preclude such choices. We favored finding new ways of organizing work and consumption, new ways of deciding who had a claim on what parts of the social product. We favored men and women birthing and parenting new generations without imbuing misogynist assumptions, hierarchical attitudes. We sought a world in which humans respected their natural home and were mindful caretakers of its wealth and beauty. We sought justice in allocation and in circumstance. We wanted differences to be celebrated and the celebration of spirit to reflect our ever growing knowledge of our selves and our natural environments. We thought people could behave with social conscience and mutual solidarity not out of a supernatural transformation of our natures, but by virtue of being born and prospering in respectful, dignified, instructive environments. And in all this we were not utopian or wild-eyed, but perfectly sensible.
There was nothing wrong with our reasoning thirty years ago, and no evidence whatsoever has accumulated over the past three decades to sunder its basic insights. On the contrary, we know more now than we did then about what kinds of changes are needed and about what the obstacles are to attaining them. The vile impositions of our society’s defining institutions on the motivations of elites and the power and means to mystify and malign the rest of us that is institutionally vested in those elites have been made repeatedly evident.
So what is the implication?
Well, it isn’t that we run around screaming "revolution now," or "country sucks, kick ass," obviously. But there is a considerable difference between: (a) having one’s head in the sand and doing nothing meant to change the world for the better, (b) working for valuable changes but with one’s focus only on the immediate reforms being sought, and (c) working for immediate changes while focused also on long-run solutions. Our commitment to ultimately revolutionize all sides of life should affect how our immediate campaigns are defined, what immediate goals we seek, and how we seek these goals. It should inform what we talk about when we organize, write, speak, and teach—what ideas we try to convey, what commitments we try to elicit. This is what seems missing from progressive and left activism, and from our very lives, today. And I think the absence of unifying goals, of shared long-term commitment, and of attention to communicating these forthrightly at every opportunity weakens not only our prospects of organizing usefully toward a distant end, but also our near-term efforts to reduce pain today. Today’s activism, for want of revolutionary designs and spirit, is often ill informed, frequently lacks integrity, and virtually never incorporates the kind of logic, solidarity, and spirit that can sustain long-term involvement by suffering constituencies.
Current movements are most often too narrow, too lacking in scope and in spiritual and moral appeal to attract wide support. Remarkably, they often celebrate their very weaknesses, their lack of vision, their lack of breath, their lack of anything resembling audacity and passion, as if these debits were virtues. At the level of feeling, of emotion, and of consciousness, our projects often do little to overcome and sometimes even contribute to the main hesitancy that impedes most people today from taking a progressive stand: the belief that nothing significantly better than what America offers is logically possible, or, even if it is logically possible, that certainly nothing significantly better than what we endure can actually be attained—so why bother? Our projects rarely convey a broad understanding of systemic causes of problems and almost never offer positive institutional alternatives to the status quo to provide hope and motivation. Because of this from the outside (and often from the inside too) our efforts look just like or sometimes even worse than the status quo, and so they are generally powerless to address the average citizen’s deep seated cynicism.
A left worth joining in the U.S. today should be fighting vigorously for immediate gains that can alleviate suffering and advance a degree of immediate dignity and justice for people, of course. We should be trying to win a thirty hour work week with full pay, full employment, real affirmative action, a comprehensive housing program, a humane health care program, a rich pre-school and public education program, a real living wage, electoral reforms that empower disenfranchised constituencies, a non-intrusive foreign policy, workers and community rights over corporate greed, and many other gains one can think of. But behind these immediate goals we should develop and communicate not only how these changes are each good in their own right, but how they gain immensely when linked together as part of a process of developing movements and organizations capable of attaining a new society whose broad character we need to be able to lay out in clear and reasonably concise language, and whose details we need to evolve by our practice.
Once one has understood even the most elementary truths about capitalism, patriarchy, racism, and authoritarianism, as so many of us have at one time or another in our lives, I don’t see how less than the above is honest, just, or strategic. Optimistically, I also think the public is readier than it has been in decades for a movement that clearly and passionately offers long-term vision and commitment as well as immediate short-term benefit.
So what are we waiting for?
We need to replace all the timidity, the defensiveness, the worry about being thought juvenile or irresponsible that has grown since the sixties with bold, honest, forthright statements of what is oh so obviously true, now as before. This country needs a revolution, the most profound and broad revolution in history, and people of good will and clear vision need to be working for it, on vision, on strategy, on program, on building alliances and organizations, on winning immediate reforms and parlaying them into greater power to win still more gains in a continuing trajectory of struggle, now and hereafter. We need to know what we want. And we need to live and fight for it. Entirely.