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Reforms, Revolution, Violence


This is chapter twenty two of the book RPS/2044: An Oral History of the next American Revolution. RPS/2044 has its own book page, with front matter, reviews, essays, interviews, testimonials and place for user interaction with the interviewees.

Lydia Luxemburg, Andrej Goldman, Peter Cabral, and Juliet Berkman discuss reforms, revolution, and violence.

Lydia, the question of seeking reform or revolution has been contentious among leftists as long as there has been a left, including at the outset of RPS. First, what was the debate?

The debate was, are seeking reforms and seeking revolution mutually exclusive, or are they mutually beneficial?

One side said, since RPS is committed to fundamentally transforming society’s defining institutions it should reject seeking reforms such as increasing the minimum wage, affirmative action, or taxing fossil fuel use because reforms improve some conditions but don’t alter the underlying institutions. For example, winning a higher minimum wage leaves the market and corporate power in place to reverse our gains as soon as they can. Even beneficial reforms are unstable, because pressures from existing institutions, in time, either reverse them or rearrange circumstances so that while the formal changes persist, the benefits they were meant to convey are reduced or eliminated by offsetting deficits. For instance, winning a wage increase is offset by rising prices. Fines for pollution are offset by increasing other pollution or passing on the fees to others.

Those opposing reforms argued that anything short of revolution wins gains that disappear and enforces the status quo by assuming its continuation.

Proponents of reforms argued that the benefits from reforms, like a higher minimum wage or pollution limits, are real and can be substantial for the people involved. Dismissing people’s efforts to win such changes for being less than seeking revolution and to not support, or even denigrate such efforts, is callous.

Proponents of reforms added that while many people dismiss fighting for reforms in the abstract, no one would tell workers seeking a higher minimum wage, or activists trying to end a war, that they are nothing but system supporters and should stop their misguided endeavors. Likewise, people do not typically move from uninvolved to revolutionary in one giant leap. It is the experience of fighting for reforms that raises consciousness, confidence, and skills to sustain longer-term commitments.

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Andrej, what has been the RPS solution? 

The RPS attitude was, “why not fight for reforms in non-reformist ways?” We should fight for reforms using language that explains our ultimate motives, aims, and methods and in ways that build lasting organization. We should ensure that upon winning a reform as many people as possible desire further gains and are in better position to win them.

In sum, RPS said we should fight for winnable gains now in ways that enhance people’s desire to win greater gains later, that improve people’s organizational means to win greater gains later, and that create lasting structures to contribute to a trajectory of change leading toward new institutions.

And the key to this view becoming predominant was for people who favored transforming society to recognize that wanting immediate modest changes didn’t negate seeking long-run fundamental change.

Can you provide an example of people following this logic?

The national campaign for a higher minimum wage as well as local industry campaigns for wage innovations each sought to win an immediate demand, but also argued for full equitable income for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor. They explained their ethics, logic, and implications. They emphasized that their immediate goal was not an end but a step toward larger gains. And it was the same for all kinds of pollution-related efforts to get cleaner and safer industrial practices, while also addressing long-term issues of structure, and even, of markets and preferred participatory planning.

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Peter, another issue was whether or not to use violence in seeking change. Can you explain the contending views?

On one side people said overcoming our existing system will encounter elites defending their advantages so unless we are prepared to overcome violent repression with greater violence in reply, we will ultimately be crushed. Therefore, we have to become both psychologically and materially capable of deploying violence. Since that won’t happen overnight or automatically, preparedness requires our possessing the tools that violence needs and becoming adept and confident using them.

We have to pursue our organizing and winning of reforms and our building of institutions in ways that make us better able to violently beat back repression, since otherwise we will ultimately succumb to repression no matter how good we are at our other activities. I should admit, this was my view at the outset.

On the other side, people replied that the existing system could not be overcome through violence. The left could not beat the military. It could not match the training, mindset, and tools of state repression. Futile attempts to do so would make military agencies more aggressive even while distorting our own values. Breaking people out of jail wasn’t a solution for draconian jailing but a sure way to enlarge it. Bombing media outlets or mimicking their manipulativeness wasn’t a solution to their manipulations, but a sure way to enhance them.

If we escalated from warding off blows at rallies with our arms to using sticks or shields, they would hit us with weapons that break sticks and shields. If we escalated to throwing rocks or molotov cocktails, they would use guns. If we picked up guns, they would use tanks. Violence was and always would be their terrain. Unless we could find a way to win that did not rely on violence, we would lose. We had to organize, win reforms, and build alternative institutions in ways that made us steadily better able to deploy non violent struggle.

Our solution to state violence was to create contexts where using violence against dissent only produced more dissent. The solution to jailing protestors was to create a context where jailing protestors produced more protest, including inside jails and among jail keepers. The solution to media machinations was our own growing media and our movements within mainstream media, as well as an enlightened public that elite lies couldn’t lead astray.

The debate wasn’t about a distant crunch time battle. If the path to a new society ultimately required sufficient violence to overcome the police and military, then getting ready for that was essential and there was no time like the present. But if the path to a new society had to avoid violence, then developing non violent discipline and methods as well as contexts in which repressive violence only intensified dissent was essential and there was no time like the present.

What was the RPS outcome that permitted people to operate well together?

This dispute could not end in a simple compromise. For one side violence was necessary, and because they deemed it necessary, they also typically deemed it positive – even virtuous. For the other side violence was immoral and destructive of effective left mindsets and prospects.

That violence was terrain the state dominated and would inexorably win was, I came to agree, irrefutable unless one felt, wait, if we let that view prevail then we will not prepare to be violent, and we will without question lose, so we must reject that observation despite its likely validity. I realized eventually that that was my own initial inconsistent mindset. I was focused on police violence. I took it for granted as inevitable. I took fighting back for granted as well. It seemed cowardly to say it was suicidal. Pointing at police preparedness, arms, and mindset in contrast to ours didn’t convince me otherwise, though it should have. And there were a lot of folks like me. Our reaction to violence, coercion, and lies was to think we must fight back on the same terms or lose.

For those arguing against a positive place for violence to reach those favoring violence, like myself, they had to convince us non violence could win. And that was the RPS approach when it claimed that while fighting with the state on the field of violence was suicidal, creating conditions in which the state could not deploy violence without suffering more than if they did not employ violence, could win. And that became RPS logic.

The task regarding violence was to reduce the state’s ability to deploy it, either directly by measures won against the state that limited its options – such as demilitarizing police and winning civilian community control over police or even gaining support by organizing among the police – or indirectly by creating conditions wherein violent repression would do more to aid and enlarge activism than it would do to repress and diminish activism.

You mention exceptions – what was that about?

Consider a strike. Suppose strike breakers prepare to bully their way through your picket line. Locking arms against that, and swinging back at assaults, would be an example of violence that RPS felt was warranted and potentially effective. Similarly, suppose we occupied some building and created a blockade of supporters to keep cops or others from entering. Or at times we might even burn down some hated target, if conditions were right for it. But these kinds of acts weren’t undertaken chaotically but methodically. They required clear rationales and careful steps. Events, projects, and actions had to continually enlarge support for dissent, and not diminish it. This meant attracting and holding allies and also developing and preserving effective, sustainable mindsets and methods.

Was there a turning point where you felt this battle was won?

It was official policy starting with the second convention, so I guess you might say it was won then. But, in fact, well after that there were plenty of RPS folks who felt great internal pressure to fight violence with violence and who kept making the case to do so, with some even breaking ranks at times to do it, though this always yielded predicted losses. I think the perspective finally fully collapsed when street gangs in various communities began to undertake political commitments and adopted two surprising policies.

First, they turned in their guns and began to support civilian control of police. These weren’t kids with clubs or bricks. They were street-schooled fighters renouncing gun violence they had long lived with. It was powerful.

And, second, and perhaps even more critical, the same gangs began urging their members to apply for jobs within the police, and not long after, RPS acknowledged that choice as a highly respected activist “career path”. The idea was simple. Those fit to do so would join the police and the military and begin transforming them from within. We had all heard about the incredible success of anti war activists doing this with the army so many decades earlier during the Vietnam war, and in that light it was surprising how long it took to see the obvious relevance to our own time.

Of course, not just anyone could join the police and maintain a steadfast commitment to social activism, but for those who could – emotionally and physically – it was clearly a far more effective and courageous choice than going to a sports shop, buying a shotgun, and practicing shooting tin cans to prepare for confrontations which would, if they ever came, end in sad defeat.

Another key turning point was earlier when football in the U.S. became embroiled in controversy about the damage the sport did to the athletes, particularly via concussions. When the anthem protests began, largely about police violence, a new dimension was added. And then there was controversy about violence against women by players. Pile on Trump’s misogyny and the situation intensified.

Suddenly you had very mainstream people all over society discussing violence, and particularly violence against women. Some sports shows on radio even had commentators blasting the NFL not only for its hypocrisies and violence, but even for its connection to the military and police, and for its fostering an alcohol-permeated culture with its ads.

It isn’t always easy to calculate the impact of a reform struggle. Did it win anything at all? What lasting impact did it have on people’s views? And mostly did it establish grounds upon which to win more. But the turmoil around sports related violence is perhaps a good example, though likely largely inadvertent, of the positive possibilities.

The percolating impact on the future of sport and national attitudes against misogyny went deep and broad. When a sport show suggests, as some did, that fans should perhaps boycott watching football until there were changes, or that teams should be forced to stop their alcohol commercials, seeds are being laid regarding what is possible and worthy regarding violence. I think such seeds contributed to RPS emerging. In contrast, demands to abolish football with threats of violence or made disdainfully of more limited reforms to protect the health of players or to reduce and eliminate sexist violations off field, would have had no broader ramifications, and would have won nothing. But more limited calls coming from players, fans, sports writers, and on air announcers, sparked sports audiences and participants toward new awareness, won some gains that mattered, and laid seeds to win more. I think the emerging anti violence mentality was a significant factor influencing RPS attitudes and choices and the continuing sports related activism by participants and fans alike. And of course subsequent rejection of thee Trump-inspired fascistic white supremacist violence followed and further matured the insights.

Couple all that with the observation, borne out too often to ignore, that movements adopting violent methods would feed residual macho misogyny and authoritarian inclinations in themselves so much as to distort their own culture and exclude major constituencies from participating, and the case against movement violence was complete. The prominent role of military veterans was also critical. After all, they experienced what others were only guessing at.

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Juliet, as a pacifist, I wonder if you have felt fully satisfied by the RPS approach to violence.

I believe in non violence as a principle, with no caveats. But I also understand that there is a gargantuan difference between violence to enforce domination and extract advantage, and violence in self defense to ward off oppression. That is why I have no trouble respecting and working with people who have far more violence-imbued beliefs than RPS.

I feel zero hostility toward strikers blocking scabs, even though I wouldn’t do it or recommend it. And I would extend that to a population violently defending against invasion, even though, again, I think such choices are ultimately counter productive.

Living in a world bequeathed by the past that has much that is human and beautiful, but also much that is vile and ugly is not easy. I think RPS has hammered out a politically, socially, strategically, and tactically wise stance. In fact, being honest, given the world we live in, I think it is probably a wiser stance than if RPS were to say no violence, period.

Is there a contradiction between my personal credo and my organizational credo? Perhaps, but sometimes in horrible circumstances what would be both ethical and sound in more desirable circumstances simply no longer works – at least until desirable circumstances are achieved.

I have taken as a model in these matters David Dellinger, who was a pacifist but very militant and open-minded activist in the 1960s. His example of being a pacifist and yet supporting the Black Panther Party, of being a pacifist and yet supporting the Vietnamese fighting against the U.S. invasion, inspired me greatly especially as I understood it steadily more over the years. I wish more people knew of his courageous acts and views. Indeed, it is a very sad commentary that Dillinger isn’t a celebrated figure of American history. But I imagine he will be, as RPS unfolds in the years ahead and resurrects the best of our past.

RPS is not pacifist in the full ethical sense that I favor. Its anti-violence owes overwhelmingly to believing violence is suicidal for trying to win a better society. I think RPS is right about that but I also have this overarching moral pressure that I feel, though I admit that for history and for humanity it is probably just as well that RPS doesn’t feel that overarching pressure quite as strongly as I do.

Juliet, I have one last last question, please. Do you think we will win? When will we have won? And, in just a few last words, what is one lesson from this whole period that strikes you as particularly critical?

Twenty years ago I hoped we would win. Now, I know we will. Don’t you? Just yesterday, my niece asked me when it will be over. We happened to be in my kitchen and looking around I said when top and bottom refer only to shelves, not to people. She understood, and smiled.

Finally, I think the lesson I have perhaps learned most profoundly is that all places and all. times have this much in common, until humans share dignity and justice, struggle will continue.

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