From Despair to Revolution

CS: The opening of the 21st Century has been marked by the complete globalization of capitalism, the September 11th terrorist attacks, the subsequent bombing of Afghanistan, colonial occupation of Iraq and continued exploitation of 9.11 to strengthen elite positions. What relevance does the concept of Revolution have in this new century?


MA: I think your list is one-sided. We need to also mention the largest coordinated international dissent in history. We need to mention the emergence of the World Social Forum and associated regional and local forums around the world. And we need to mention the numerous grassroots networks worldwide, and the new organizational initiatives in countries around the world, as well. In other words, we need to note that while Bush is in the saddle in the U.S., and while that ranks this among the worst of times, people’s movements are globally rising and renovating, and that ranks this among the best of times.


The relevance of revolution is straightforward. The word means fundamental changes in defining institutions. We need such changes because our current defining institutions enforce hierarchies of power, wealth, and status that impede deny people the most full and fruitful lives they could live while allowing some other people to prosper and rule beyond what any human ought to possess and assert.


Revolution resonates because in place of our current hierarchical legislative, adjudicative, economic, family, socialization, nurturance, sexual, religious, ethnic, racial, and other institutions, we need new ways of socially entwining our efforts that meet people’s needs, develop people’s potentials, and advance values such as equity, diversity, solidarity, justice, sustainability, and self management.



CS: As if previous centuries of U.S. intervention weren’t bad enough, we now have bigger obstacles leading to deeper feelings of helplessness. Why is resigning from struggle not an option?


MA: The U.S. intervention in Iraq, which pummeled the defenseless, was grotesque. But we ought not ignore that the U.S. had to try to minimize civilian casualties. This wasn’t because this century’s imperial leaders have larger hearts or more exalted souls than last century’s. It was because our social movements made them fear the repercussions of still worse carnage.


I don’t see bigger obstacles now than in the past. I see similar institutions in place now, as in the past, but also a much more aware populace, both domestically and worldwide. I think what is now on movements’ agendas isn’t just peripheral symptoms but the whole system. The educational and consciousness raising problem has become steadily less about getting people to realize there is injustice, and steadily more about getting people to share a new vision. This changes our tasks, and it is major improvement.


I think numerous reasons indicate that resigning from struggle is not an option, a few of which we can note here.


Each person who resigns causes one small reduction in the probability of attaining a better world. Was it an option to resign from the struggle against slavery? To resign from the struggle for women’s suffrage? To resign from the struggle for unions, for the eight hours day, or against colonialism? To resign from the struggle against Jim Crow racism? To resign from the struggle against apartheid, in South Africa? So how can it be an option to resign from the struggle against current denials of human dignity, freedom, and empowerment?


Simply on human grounds of being the best people we can be, there is a huge onus against resignation. But the reason to resist resignation goes deeper.


It isn’t just that fighting on the side of the angels is better than abetting the devil? We can and we will win. The only issue is when we will do so. The point of this observation is that in addition to being right to resist, it is wise and productive to resist. It contributes to short and long run victory.


Being activist is not rolling rocks up hills, or digging useless ditches, or blowing into the wind, or opposing gravity. It is part of the single most important, courageous, and productive undertaking in all human history, one with deep roots and a winning future.


Do those who think resigning makes sense really want to say that the abolitionists were wrong, that workers in daily struggles for better wages and conditions have all been wrong, that the advocates of women and blacks and Latinos being people were wrong, that seeking liberation has been and will be wrong?


Do they really want to assert that wage slavery is forever? That it violates nature and reason that human beings should control their own lives rather than most people being subject to the domineering will of a very few?


Do they really want to say people can’t conceive and implement systems in which poverty and starvation and death by preventable disease and denial of dignity and stature are eradicated?


On what grounds, do they proclaim such pessimism?


Once upon a time, when Pharaohs whipped slaves into building their tombs, or when emperors dragooned peasants into fighting lions for imperial entertainment, or when slave owners lynched growers into subordination, was it desirable to resign from opposition? So why is now any different? Does someone, somewhere, suddenly have a crystal ball which says that no matter how hard humanity struggles, there will be no better future?



CS: We’ve been struggling for global justice. For small change, for big change. How does Revolutionary change become distinct from making changes to an already existing system?


MA: When we win an alteration in existing conditions – say we win higher wages, affirmative action, laws against violence against women or against gays, better conditions at work, new government housing or education programs, the end of a war or its prevention, or even the end of the IMF or its replacement – we are changing things that matter very much, and thereby bettering lives, but we aren’t changing underlying defining relations. The roots of the ills we are addressing persist in such cases and they will even tirelessly work to resurrect the things we have corrected, against our efforts, eventually rolling back our efforts.


So the trick isn’t to disparage important gains that we call reforms. To disparage them is to be callous to real present needs and possibilities and to cut off, as well, the means to reach a fundamentally better future. The trick is to fight for such gains in a non-reformist way, to use words and images, and to form movement organizations, and to pick programmatic goals, all conceived to leave us stronger and more desirous of still more changes once we win immediately sought ends.


The idea is to fight for and get the higher wages or new education programs or whatever else we today seek in ways that raise consciousness, desires, and expectations, and that create new organizations all of which innovations leave us not inclined to go home after winning, but inclined to and also better able to win still more gains. It is a bit like winning ever higher ground or ever better terrain for the next round of struggle. It is fighting to win a trajectory of change leading toward and merging into the fundamental goals we hold.



CS: Empires of today have unprecedented means of military and political might. They clearly hold a monopoly on power. How can movements for Revolutionary change contest with this seemingly impossible imbalance?


MA: Yes, they hold a monopoly on violent power, or very nearly so. But that is very different than saying they hold a monopoly on power. When the NYT noted just after the February 15th worldwide demonstrations that now there were two superpowers, the U.S. government and military on the one hand and world public opinion on the other hand – the Times was saying, quite explicitly, that that public opinion was already more substantial than the militaries and governments of all countries other than the U.S. So we need to see that too.


Movements seeking fundamental changes have always lacked the military means and also the means of mass communication of their opponents, and we are no different. In the U.S. the abolitionists, the suffragettes, the 40 hour work week movements, and many others all lacked significant military power but instead had the power of growing numbers, and growing understanding and organization.


We can contest their military might by creating conditions in which for them to exercise violence would cost them more than it would gain them. Why didn’t governments all over the world simply open fire on February 15th? To fire would have spurred more resistance than it curtailed. One counters the massive firepower of the state and other concentrated centers of influence by assembling ever increasing numbers of dissidents who have ever greater commitment and consciousness.



CS: Recent anti-corporate globalization and Peace movements have also been unparalleled in history. However, they are still starkly out numbered by the people who are not at the rallies. Busy in their day to day lives. How do we reach them? How do we “tip the scales” so the numbers are reversed?


MA: Why is a given person absent from demonstrations?


There are many and varied reasons. A person can be ignorant of the injustices and their causes and thus disinclined to oppose them. To address this we must provide information to eliminate illusions. We should undertake campaigns to force mainstream media to carry more truth and substance about contemporary injustices, and we should also organize the old fashioned way, one person at a time, as well as develop our own means of communication to carry information to many people at once.


How about a person who understands both the magnitude of current injustices and even their social causes, and even endures the associated pain, and yet avoids demonstrations and other dissent? This can occur, for example, because a person thinks that there are no better institutions that could replace current hardship and suffering with a better world. Or maybe such people think that while perhaps such institutions are technically possible, we can’t attain them. The defenders of hierarchy have too much power. 


Overcoming such impediments requires that we clarify vision of worthy and workable institutions that would constitute a better world, as well as describing scenarios of activism that could attain that better world. We need to not only rail at what is wrong, but envision what could be right.


The beliefs that there is no alternative or that you can’t fight city hall are bedrocks of hopelessness impeding activism. It shouldn’t be surprising given how little attention movements give to developing shared and inspiring vision and strategy. But the deficit is good news because it suggests that if we redress this absence the impact could be – and I think it will be – enormous.



CS: Many would probably agree to a life without racism, patriarchy, class divisions, rampant hierarchies or environmental degradation. But, there seems to be a gap when agreeing about what we’re against and imagining what we’re for. What’s the difference between these two approaches? What purpose is there in imagining “Life after the Revolution”?


MA: Why don’t we generate, discuss, debate, and finally share a compelling vision – and then also broad strategic plans for attaining it? On the face of it, it doesn’t make much sense to be talking about taking a trip, a revolution, and struggling to struggle to get going, but to avoid noting where you wish to get to, or what means of transport you intend to utilize.


I think one possibility for why this happens is that people are afraid that posing a vision is authoritarian. They think offering a vision is saying, here, this is the goal, follow it. Offering a strategic scenario is saying here, this is the road, get on it. But I am not sure why this is. After all, why can’t offering a vision or strategy be saying, here, this is a proposal for a goal and method, critique it, debate it, refine it, and if need be completely replace it, but let’s settle on something we can jointly share and pursue, improving as we go?


People say what we want must emerge from practice. Well sure it must – and won’t anything remotely worthy that is proposed, whether regarding economy, polity, kin relations, culture, or anything else, of course derive from the lessons of hundreds of years of practice and most likely considerable personal involvement as well? Ten years from now, twenty, or a hundred years from now, would the situation be significantly different? If we are going to be ready to try, I don’t we why we aren’t ready to try.


The key isn’t that new ideas should arise simultaneously in a million minds and be written in unison all over the planet as their first utterance – that is simply nonsense. The first time whatever becomes a vision is going to be uttered, it will be uttered by an individual, or perhaps by a few people. The key is that percolating and bubbling ideas get stated by someone, clearly, and then noted and assessed, and debated, and so on, in ever widening circles, thereby becoming not instructions or proclamations from above, but owned by all who take the time to comprehend and refine and improve them. It seems to me that hesitance to be authoritarian regarding vision should propel public formulation of vision, not impede it.


Another possibility has more to do with what you have been asking about – lack of hope. If people to a considerable degree fear to discover that there really is no better world, then it wouldn’t be surprising that they avoid the topic, and the horrible revelations it may hold. But this too is wrong, I think, and at any rate, leads no place positive.


There are no doubt other reasons, as well. But I think the key thing to notice is that there is a change under way, finally, and activists seem to be turning a corner on this issue too. We can only advocate the slogan another world is possible so many times before we start to wonder about more substance. We begin to ask and address what it would look like, and specifically what institutions would it have. And I think that change of orientation is starting to happen, and will have profound effects.



CS: Different people have different understandings of social change. There are women, men, children, workers, diverse sexualities, ethnicities, cultures, religions etc. How can we achieve Revolution when there are so many diverse constituency?


MA: Humans are such that to live we must accomplish various kinds of functions. We have to procreate, socialize, nurture. We have to produce, distribute, consume. We have to celebrate, identify, define. We have to legislate, adjudicate, share programs. To accomplish these and other functions we come together and act collectively. We create lasting structures which have roles that we diversely fill and are in turn affected by. These cause us to have diverse views about life and our situations, and if the groups we form into are arrayed in hierarchies, to have opposed situations and interests, as well. And this in turn leads to movements and struggles. So since this is due to who we are, it is contrary to human diversity to envision, instead, one big single-minded movement.


But why can’t we have solidarity even with diversity and autonomy? Why can’t diverse constituencies take leadership regarding agendas for their key areas of concern – gender, race, class, and others – and yet also realize their overarching need to mutually support and be supported by other movements with other priorities?


I think we can do this and that this is another contemporary theme of activism – in addition to paying ever increasing attention to vision. And I think this too is going to have powerful repercussions for movement effectiveness.



CS: Despite desires for radical change there are centuries full of thwarted and failed Revolutions. What would distinguish future successful Revolutions from these historical attempts?


MA: I think you are referring in particular to Marxist Leninist efforts. These didn’t fail because their popular mass support wanted to fail. The massive movements behind these efforts weren’t hoping to win new concentrations of power as bad as the old, or in some respects arguably even worse. They wanted liberation. But they got gulags. What went wrong?


Well, I think the key thing to realize is that wanting liberation, rhetorically, even with a passion in one’s heart, simply isn’t enough. If you want liberation, but your movement utilize means and even seeks specific institutions which have entirely contrary logic of power and aggrandizement, for example, then you will keep singing the praises of liberation, perhaps, but you will see its prospects steadily eroded by the structures you create.


The Bolshevik revolution, and others, got what the institutions they sought and those institutions precluded what they sought, rhetorically.


What needs to be different about new rounds of struggle is that they understand better the need to have institutional means and goals actually in accord with their highest aspirations, and, as well, that they spell out those aspirations more fully, and have them shared more widely.


Different people will disagree about precisely what that entails – and no doubt it will be history that arbitrates those differences. For myself, I think it means that we ought to seek participatory and self managing structures using vehicles to organize and to manifest our energies that accord with those ends and embody their values in the present. I happen to favor something called participatory economics, and, as well, an emerging related political vision, and ones for other spheres of life, as well – and this causes me to also favor council and assembly organization, means of decision making that apportion influence to actors in proportion as they are affected, among other priorities. And I think all this will matter, greatly, in differentiating our efforts from many others in the past.



CS: Classical, 60’s and the New Left movements have all made invaluable contributions towards social change. What progress have we made? What are our shortcomings?


MA: Jeeez, these are such huge questions. I was thinking maybe toward the end I’d get something bite-sized. I think there are diverse measures of progress and they arevisible all around. Gains in regard to race, gender, authority, and economics as well, have occurred.


I would say our biggest shortcomings have to do with vision and strategy, as noted above, and also what I call stickiness. That is, we are not as good as we need to be at creating movements which cause people to become ever more committed rather than making people incline toward leaving. I think stickiness requires of us creating movements that are more congenial to different constituencies, more empowering to them, and that actually deliver better lives to their members, rather than our movements feeling even more onerous than the societies we live in.

CS: We want humane values and institutions. We need Revolutionary social change. How can today’s diverse movements get us from here to there, in this Century?


MA: In this century? I don’t know about anyone else, but I want us to arrive at fundamentally new institutions much sooner than that. Again, it is such a big question, but I think the answer, very broadly, is that our movements will need to develop vision for what we want that can inspire and motivate support. Our movements will need to describe a broad scenario of struggle that leads to desirable ends and in which people see how their efforts will make a profound difference. Our movements will need to become congenial to diverse constituencies and to embody the values we hold dear, both so we can learn more about those, so we can be oriented toward where we wish to wind up, and to serve our needs in the present, as well. And our movements will need to win a sequence of non reformist reforms while building both broad movement structures and grass roots mechanisms for participation and decision making. All this, including growing, inspiring, and winning gains in a trajectory of change leading to fundamentally redefined institutions, seems to me to be the broad answer, which, however, needs to be filled out in every respect by our experiences and thoughts.



CS: Thanks very much Michael.


Well thank you. And you are most welcome, of course.

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