Consider U.S. citizens who wish to eliminate capitalism, racism, sexism, war, and ecological decline by changing society’s defining institutions. Call this group “revolutionaries.” Even if we don’t require that revolutionaries are in organizations, or that they orient their whole lives around revolutionary commitment, or that they can espouse clear and compelling vision as a goal for revolution, and even using the least stringent membership conditions we might imagine, there are still likely only tens of thousands and at most a quarter million in this group.
Consider in contrast all who hoped to elect Bernie Sanders to make things better. Include anyone who volunteered or voted for Sanders, but also those who simply wished he would win. Call this group, “dissenters.” How many are there? Tens of millions.
“Movement makers” might think that the revolutionaries are correct about what society needs, but also that they risk attrition from being sucked into supporting lesser endeavors. In this view, revolutionaries who understand the institutional roots of injustice and who understand the need for long term commitment are critical to winning change, but may lose their awareness if they support anything less than revolution now. It says we should protect revolutionaries from sliding back toward resignation. It emphasizes that anything short of revolution is distraction. It sometimes even calls those who seek lesser ends “Clintonian fascists” and “sheep herder sell outs.” At any rate, this thinking draws lines clearly to make sure no one confuses the issues. It pinpoints and emphasizes that some revolutionaries may defect due to confusion sown by not repeating over and over that everything short of revolution is a sell out and by not dismissing as sheep herding everything short of demanding revolution now. It asks about every project, is it truly seeking a revolution with no attention to anything less than that aim – and then dismisses all that fails to measure up to that standard as merely trying to put band aids on injustice. We want the world and we want it now says this thinking, even if we have not the remotest mechanism for attaining it now, and even if trying for a bit less today would facilitate trying for much more tomorrow.
Activists welcoming dissenters into angry but limited campaigns is not celebrated. It is, instead, dismissed for being not overtly, clearly, fully, and uncompromisingly revolutionary.
For this way of thinking it is as if a person must jump from politically disengaged to raging revolutionary in one leap. No steps in between deserve respect and help.
What about a second line of thought? The dissenters who wanted Sanders to win are right that society needs many improvements. They are, however, often new to voicing such desires. They can easily fall back into not seeking change if their tentative journey into dissent is rebuffed or seems futile. On the other hand, if welcomed and successful, they could become more aware, confident, and militant. They could move from dissent toward a revolutionary perspective.
The second line of thought says seasoned organizers, writers, activists, and just plain old seekers of change ought to be most concerned to help dissenters become more informed, involved, and radical. It asks how we can best organizationally and programmatically welcome dissenters into lasting participation. It asks about every project, can this potentially welcome dissenters and sustain their forward motion? Can it enrich their awareness and involvement, and help them accomplish more?
Both lines of thought understand the ultimate need for fundamental change. Both criticize paths that have no prospect of leading toward fundamental change. But the two lines of thinking disagree on what qualifies as having no prospect of leading toward fundamental change.
The “guard against revolutionaries defecting” approach says anything that is not overtly demanding fundamental change now cannot be moving toward fundamental change. The “welcome and empower dissenters” approach rejects only inflexible methods, norms, beliefs or especially social relations that will obstruct seeking fundamental change.
This isn’t just a glass half empty versus glass half full face off. It is also about whether there is a spigot, often even of our own making, draining or filling the glass. And it is about trying to curtail draining and increase filling rather than simply smashing the glass if it doesn’t immediately match one’s most extreme desires.
Social change is a bit like a marathon. Highly trained runners/activists using the first type of thinking outlined above think the radical/revolutionary task is to get out in front of the pack as far as possible by running as fast as possible, with revolutionary flags flying high. If the mass of runners starts to get closer, turn on the jets and move further ahead. Look back and wave goodbye to the pack. Wave your revolutionary flag as you streak to the finish line.
If these type one runner/organizers have their way the group of current revolutionaries may not shrink and may even, sometimes, get a little larger. But regardless of the destiny of current revolutionaries, with this type approach the group of dissenters will grow tired of being ignored or reviled. It will grow weary of lack of clarity and scant means to participate. It will grow angry at being disrespected. And then as the experienced runner/revolutionaries speed off into their own celebrations of quick finish times, the dissenters will fall back into social conformity. It won’t be due to being duped or tricked, or due lacking capacity. It will be due to deciding that dissent is degrading and fruitless.
Type two runner/activists, in contrast, think how fast they run is irrelevant. What matters is how many other runners they help to finish better than they have before. They want nearly everyone to reach the finish line together, with solidarity and clarity, as well as with a steadily improving pace. They don’t use their greater speed/experience to leave the main body of runners behind. They instead work with people throughout the race to bring the whole pack forward faster, and to help it generate unity of purpose.
If type two organizers have their way, the group of dissenters maintains its involvement and grows. More, a growing subsection of it moves beyond being angry to being revolutionary.
In the current moment, it seems to me that one explicit application of all this is that trying to make the new organization, “Our Revolution,” a better mechanism for generating activism and increasing involvement from dissenters is type two activity. On the other hand, trying to uphold revolutionary fervor and identity by dismissing “Our Revolution” and everyone interested in improving it without trying to salvage its potential is type one activity.
Consider the petition called, “Support and Improve Our Revolution.” The petition doesn’t call for revolution now. It doesn’t map out aims for a new society. Of course some of its advocates do precisely those things much of the time, but the petition itself references the present.
No one would claim the petition is perfect in any sense. Nor would anyone claim that it will inevitably succeed in transforming “Our Revolution.” But it does seek to create a discussion and then pressure the new organization to become a vehicle not only for limited immediate change, but for programmatically and structurally advancing long run potentials too. And the petition could succeed, albeit only if there are many more signers and a lot of followup effort.
To sign the petition is, in the eyes of those doing so, a small act seeking desirable change. No one claims it is more that that.
But I wonder what to not sign the petition is in the eyes of those who choose that option? What does not taking ten minutes to sign this petition indicate that one seeks, positively, now? And whatever that may be, why does seeking it preclude also supporting trying to strengthen “Our Revolution” in hopes it can engage and empower the tens of millions of dissenters the Sanders campaign has inspired?