Reform vs. Revolution
The question of whether movements should fight for reform or revolution is not a new one. It pops up in any time period where people think it’s possible to win one or the other, or both. Thanks to Occupy, the question is on the table again, in this new political climate.
A friend once told me – if you’re struggling to choose between two different options, and you just can’t make up your mind, don’t bother: Just have both. I think he might have meant it in terms of something smaller, like which flavor ice cream to order, but I think we can use that thinking about reform and revolution as well – and many revolutionaries of old have come up with similar answers (Andre Gorz is a good place to start if you are looking for further reading).
It’s a mistake to pose revolution and reform against one another. The two do not stand in conflict, and there is no need to choose between them. Reform on its own is not enough, and thinking narrowly about reform can hurt the movement in the long-run, so we need revolution, but you can’t have a revolution without winning reforms along the way. You need both. In fact, the question itself is too narrow. It’s not about reforms or revolution as two abstract options, it’s about winning, and the question is not whether we should win things, but what things we should try to win, and how.
We Need Transformation
When the Argentines began occupying and reclaiming their factories in the wake of the economic crisis of 2001, they had a slogan in response to those who told them they should take their concerns to the ballot: Our dreams, they said, do not fit in your ballot boxes. Though the slogans have been different, it is clear the Occupy Movement has been driven by this same impulse. The direct action we have taken, the occupations we carried out, the things we said and wrote and painted – revealed a deep understanding that there is something fundamentally wrong with society as it is, and an unrelenting belief that another world is possible.
We can make important improvements within the system, but ultimately, we can’t solve our crises by making cosmetic changes or tweaking things here and there. We are dealing with a system of oppression in which capitalism, authoritarianism, patriarchy, and white supremacy produce and reproduce one another in all aspects of social life – in ways as subtle as the ads we see in public bathrooms or the lessons we are taught in school, and as overt as the foreclosure crisis and indefinite detention at Guantanamo Bay. It is a system that rests on exploitation, domination, and coercion in fundamental ways, in which oppression and injustice are not anomalies, but in the very DNA of the institutions that dominate our lives.
Austerity – the gutting of vital social services so that the wealthy can get tax cuts while profiting from privatization – is a natural extension of neoliberalism, which is a natural evolution of capitalism. Mass incarceration, police brutality, and stop-and-frisk are policies that grow from a system that is white supremacist at its roots, one built on the backs of enslaved people and in the wake of genocide. A woman is sexually assaulted in the US every two seconds, and LGBTQ youth face homelessness in astronomical proportions, because the system we face is patriarchal in its core. We experience hierarchy everywhere from the school to the workplace to the prison to the family because authoritarianism is part of the fabric of this society, and it is taught to us everywhere we go. War abroad, the hoarding of natural resources by the Global North at the expense of the Global South, massive climate change that threatens the whole planet, and the commodification of everything from humans to air, are outgrowths of this system as well.
The things we deal with in our day to day are outgrowths of these systemic realities. An economy with greater regulations, publically funded elections, decent healthcare, quality public education – these are immensely important wins to fight for, necessary on the road to something better, but winning these things alone doesn’t unravel those greater systems of oppression. And even though we zoom out to understand different forms of oppression more clearly, we can’t deal with those things apart from the whole – capitalism doesn’t limit itself to the stock market, it is in the foundations of governments, it is burrowed deeply in our culture, it follows us into our bedrooms. The same is true for white supremacy, for patriarchy, for authoritarianism: these systems are intimately intertwined with one another to form a system of oppression that is deeply embedded in all areas of social life.
Only a real social transformation – one that understands our oppression as linked and at the very roots of the institutions that serve as the frameworks of our social life – can change that, and we shouldn’t settle for anything less. If we fight for reforms without a deep commitment to building a movement that can strike at the roots of oppression and win real liberation, we risk putting ourselves in the position to trade in long-term power in exchange for short-term wins. We must constantly remember that, even when we fight for the things we need in the here and now, it is on the road to something much bigger. We will always demand more, because we demand it all.
We want a political and economic system that we all actually control together, one that is equitable and humane, one that allows for people to manage their own lives but act in solidarity with one another, one that is participatory and democratic to its core. We want a world where people have the right to their own identities, communities, and cultures, and control over the institutions needed to live them out. We want a world with institutions that take care of us, our partners, our youth, our elderly, and our families in ways that are nurturing, liberating, healthy, and actively consensual. We want a world in which community is not a hamper on individual freedom, but rather an expression of its fullest potential.
We need a real social transformation – a revolution of values and the institutions we use to live them out.
Rome Was Not Sacked in a Day
They say Rome wasn’t built in a day. Well, it wasn’t sacked in a day either.
In school, history is taught around dates and figures. We learn that revolutions are led by gallant individuals, and fought on certain days. We see images of revolutionary flags billowing on liberated mountaintops, of magnificent leaders applauded by masses of people, of moments of struggle when old orders collapse and new ones take their place.
But we rarely read of the decades of hard organizing that led up to those moments, the fight for small gains all along the way, the many working people of all colors and genders and sexual orientations who fought for survival day in day out making the movement a reality, the countless smaller uprisings that won smaller victories, the many that were crushed along the way. And we learn very little, too, about the struggle that takes place after momentary victories – the incredible work of transforming ourselves and those around us, of building institutions that facilitate a free society, of fighting again and again to keep what we’ve won, of the beautiful struggle of resisting, reclaiming, and reconstructing over and over again.
We have to come to terms with that history, although it might not be as appealing. We’ve got to outgrow the idea that the revolution is an event to be measured in moments and actions, and that it’s just around the corner – that all we need are oppressive conditions and a match to light the flame. Those notions are based on immature premises, proven wrong time and time again, that the worse things get, the more likely we are to rise up – that reform, because it makes peoples’ lives better, is counter-revolutionary. We have to confront that thinking, because it’s popular, it’s sexy, it comes up over and over throughout history, and because it is cruel, empirically false, and incredibly divisive to the movement.
On a very basic level, that kind of thinking is heartless. A theory that compels us to oppose measures that would materially improve people’s lives in the service of some abstract goal cannot possibly be driven by the compassion, love, and idealism that must be at the center of any worthwhile revolution. The consequences of theories like this are disproportionately felt by those already most oppressed and most marginalized, and often proposed and defended by those with great privilege.
But even more to the point, it’s empirically untrue. The theory itself – that deep crisis on its own leads to revolution if it is met with a spark – is bankrupt. If all it took was conditions being terrible and a vanguard marching in the streets to wake everyone up, we wouldn’t need to be having this conversation. It’s already bad enough – just how awful does it have to get? The truth is it’s harder to fight back under worse conditions, not easier. The many working people all across this country struggling around the clock to support their families, straddled with debt, or facing foreclosure can attest to how hard it is to scrape together the time to be a revolutionary while constantly facing crisis. So can political organizers living in police states like Egypt, or under military occupations like Afghanistan, or close to starvation in places like Haiti where people eat cakes made of mud to survive. Desperation doesn’t mean it is any easier to be a revolutionary; it just means more suffering.
There is no magical tipping point, no low point so low that it automatically compels us to fight, no spark so compelling that is spontaneously wakes us all up. We fight because of our concrete experiences of oppression as well as the little bittersweet tastes of freedom we have pieced together, because of our education and the culture around us or the unexplained ways in which we have learned to reject them, because of hard organizing people have done for decades to prepare us, because a whole host of other factors we don’t even understand. In many cases, actually, we rise up not when we are absolutely desperate, but when we have won a little bit – enough to realize our collective strength.
Revolution is not event, but a process. There is nothing inevitable about it, and our freedom is not historically determined. To win it, we have to build movements able to fight for it, movements that struggle over long periods of time to knock down the institutions of the status quo and replace them with the institutions of a free society. That means growing, practicing, learning, teaching, and winning things that put the movement in an increasingly better position to win more; it means fighting back to protect ourselves while pushing forward to create new possibilities.
Fighting Back and Pushing Forward
It’s not about reform or revolution, it’s about winning things that meet our needs now while improving our position to struggle in the long-run, and it’s about fighting in ways that grow and deepen the movement as we go. We need to choose struggles that allow us to fight back and push forward at the same time, to defend ourselves and win things we truly need while building power for the struggle beyond.
An example of a strategic battle like this might be fighting against tuition increases at public universities, and for free higher education. Fighting for free universities gives us the opportunity to draw connections between injustices faced in our daily lives – such as tuition increases, mass student debt, the policing of college campuses, the de-education of people of color, the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the already wealthy in the form of tax breaks and privatization – to the deep-seated systems of oppression that cause them. But just as importantly, winning a struggle for free higher education grows the movement, because it means students don’t have to work two jobs just to stay in school; it means they would have the time and energy to breathe, to organize, to fight back, to push further – to join the movement.
Beyond this, we need to look not only at what we ought to be struggling for, but how we ought to struggle. We should use methods that are practical and related directly to the things we are trying to win, with a wide range of options on the table. But we need to always remember to choose tactics that achieve the long-term goal of growing and deepening the movement and put us in a better position to fight for liberation – tactics that open up space for the movement to grow, that deepen our resolve and understanding of the system and its alternatives, that teach new skills so people can self-manage and struggle further, that allow us to practice our visions of freedom and make it feel good to be in the movement. Sometimes it means being in the streets, sometimes it means walkouts and strikes or other forms of civil disobedience, and sometimes it means flyering and one-on-ones, teach-ins and mass meetings, or a whole host of other tactics. Every context has its own solutions, and we have to be flexible, but we need to remember our principles and our goals – to win now while creating more opportunities for winning beyond the immediate struggles, to fight back while pushing forward.
Ultimately, the key is power – recognizing and contesting it in our enemies, building it for ourselves, taking it from those who oppress and exploit, using it to transform ourselves and the values and institutions of our society. Winning matters. We are in a battle over the massive human potential wasted, squandered, and buried under systems of oppression, capable of so much. We are in a battle over our futures, the futures of our families and communities. We are in a battle for our lives.
We have to recognize that the institutions of the status quo and the individuals who control them have real power over us – power that can’t simply be willed away, that has to be challenged and overcome, taken and used in the service of freedom. We must take our opponents seriously and confront them, by standing in the face of power to challenge and replace it. We have to fight to win things in the present, not only because we want our communities to survive and flourish, but because that’s how we build another kind of power: people power. Winning things in the here and now is how we open up space for further struggle, grow the movement, begin to develop institutions of a free society, and chip away at the status quo. We fight back while pushing forward, struggle today to win the things that put us in the position to win even more tomorrow. We do this by struggling around the daily injustices people suffer while always remembering our visions of freedom beyond.
And as we fight, we must never give up the power we are building for the comfort we might gain through battles along the way. We must assert that we will never be satisfied by anything this system can give us, that there is always another victory to be won, that our struggle over concrete and present things is always on the road to something greater. We must remember that reform plus reform plus reform does not equal revolution, that real transformation necessitates moments of confrontation, that we must build power to stand up and sit down at those key times and places when crumbling systems are dealt their death blows and doors to new possibilities of freedom are forced open.
Yotam Marom is an activist, organizer, educator, and writer based in New York City. He is a member of the Organization for a Free Society, and has been active in Occupy Wall Street and other social struggles. His writing can be found at www.ForLouderDays.net.