I had the pleasure to interview Michael Albert, radical activist and co-founder of Z Communications & Z Magazine, co-founder of South End Press, and co-author of several books on all kinds of topics, most notably “ParEcon: Life after Capitalism” and “Remembering Tomorrow,” two personal favorites of mine. The interview occurred in late June, 2014.
This is the first of six parts. It deals mostly with what is revolution, and what being a revolutionary entails. As to the other parts, they will be linked, below, as they are published…
Paulo: Hello Michael, thanks for taking time off your schedule to answer my questions. First and foremost, let’s start with a simple question. You have called yourself a revolutionary on several occasions, which conjures romantic images of people taking up arms, fighting for change, and so on. However, I believe that’s not quite what you mean by it. What, in your opinion, a revolutionary?
I think a revolutionary believes society needs a fundamental overhaul in its basic defining institutions in one or more key facets of life and acts on that belief as his or her situation permits.
I am, by that definition, a revolutionary to the extent that I do what I can today, short of crippling what I can do tomorrow, to attain new defining institutions.
That doesn’t sound like trying to change things by force, which is the general perception of a revolution…
Force, or violence, can be part of but are not what defines a revolution. More, they aren’t even necessary for a process to be a revolution. What is necessary, is, at least in my view, what I said: a fundamental change in a society’s defining institutions.
Developing a new product – portable phones or even cold fusion if we ever get that – is not a revolution. Changing some features of economic, political, cultural, or kinship arrangements in a society, while leaving the basic defining structures unchanged, is not a revolution. Adding daycare facilities is not a revolution. Altering campaign finance laws is not a revolution. Affirmative action is not a revolution. Creating agencies to regulate environmental pollution – in fact even undertaking a humongous Manhattan project level campaign to end global warming, is not a revolution. All of these matter, or would matter, and may even be critical for human survival, and may also be part of what occurs during a revolutionary process, but still, they are not themselves what I mean by revolution.
Could you elaborate? It sounds like you are telling me what a revolution is not, rather than what it is… How about some concrete examples of what you think a revolution is?
Redefining the basic roles of mothering and fathering and the associated family arrangements to eliminate hierarchy between men and women. Changing the government’s logic to participatory democracy based on local assemblies to eliminate fixed hierarchies of political power. Reconstituting cultural dynamics and institutions to remove suppression of minorities or any cultural community. Replacing basic economic institutions like private ownership and markets, to eliminate class division. These can each be revolution whether the process of attaining these changes is primarily electoral or activist, non violent or violent, tumultuous and quick or continuous and slow.
So, while I can see how it would have been different during the sixties, when people actually went out on the streets in troves and sometimes even didn’t mind getting physical with the powers that be… that image corresponds with what the average person perceives as revolutionary, even though I might not. However, right now you’ve been around for a while and while I certainly don’t question your commitment, I can see how people would look funny at you when you tell them you are revolutionary at this very moment. Don’t you believe it’s somewhat strange to say ‘I’m a revolutionary’ when asked? Perhaps even a bit pretentious or childish?
Perhaps, if you hadn’t asked. But you asked, so I answered. And I left open determining if I qualify.
So it is a bit pretentious, which is why I don’t typically do it, unless there is some point to be made. But I don’t think it is childish – save in the sense that most children, if they have time to think it over, and if they have relevant facts, would almost certainly agree that we need revolutionary change.
Is it childish, however, in the sense of juvenile, immature, un-thought through – or anything like that? No, I think it is a matter of utmost concern about which only a fool would be frivolous or posture, or judge without thinking.
At some point I mentioned to a friend, that I believe that you not only talk the talk, but also walk the walk, regarding your radical commitments. Do you think you talk the talk, AND walk the walk yourself? Or might I be a little bit deluded?
If I didn’t think I did, I would have to alter my choices. We should realize, however, that in different times, and under different conditions, and with a population that is highly aroused or relatively quiescent, and for people with different talents and inclinations – different deeds make sense. No deed is, regardless of the context, intrinsically revolutionary. Certainly not, for example, firing off guns. Indeed, such behavior, often thought to be a mark of revolutionary action, is, in my view, only rarely even worthy, much less revolutionary.
So you think people like Gandhi were right, by never using violence, no matter what happens? You can’t see cases where this might actually be a bad idea?
No, I am not a pacifist. I think we should assess actions in light of the likelihood they will achieve sought ends with the least losses. In most places and at most times, if we respect that guideline, the use of violence to try to usher in a better social system strikes me as horribly ill conceived.
So what about the “Killing Train”? The concept of attaching train wagons to put all the people who visited upon innocent people, death, famine, misery, lack of self-respect, and so on, resonated strongly. Why not give the powerful elites “a taste of their own medicine”?
Well, the “Killing Train” was an essay that used the image of a mammoth train filled with victims, actually corpses, not culprits. And if I remember right, I imagined it glass, so you could see in, as it stretched across the U.S. and back a number of times. The image was to make graphic the scale of injustices. But the train wasn’t full of perpetrators – not at all.
As to giving elites a taste of their own medicine, first, violence is the stomping ground of those who wish to maintain the current world. Violence is the terrain where they excel. Violence is where they are expert. Violence is where they have the best tools. Violence is where their value system – that of the piranna- fits. So why undertake struggle in ways that most empower system maintainers? Far from giving them a dose of their own medicine, this choice typically enables them, empowers them, plays to their strong suit.
For example, the idea that in the U.S. a social movement can use weaponry to overcome the combined, highly organized, munificently equipped, and virtually unrestrained forces of police and military repression is, to me, nonsense. The only route to overcome such forces of reaction is to demobilize them, and the only way to do that, that I can see, is by having their rank and file reject repressing their fellow citizens.
The second reason for not giving elites a taste of their own medicine is that for movements to utilize violence is typically the opposite of planting seeds of the future in the present. Instead of cultivating new habits suitable for a new world, using violence caters to and enlarges old attitudes of coercion, paranoia, and manipulation. Using violence leads away from generalized participation toward macho domineering. It leads away from self management and solidarity toward internal hierarchy and treating other people as counters in a contest.
So it does sound like you are a pacifist, no?
No. A pacifist rejects all violence on principle, at least for him or herself. I have known a few, and they were very sincere and committed. Most notably Dave Dellinger – who was in my view an incredibly exemplary revolutionary – but pacifist. What distinguished Dellinger from many other pacifists is that while he abhorred violence, he also understood the difference between defensive violence and offensive violence, between state violence and violent resistance. So Dellinger had no trouble respecting and befriending various practitioners of violent acts, even as he was critical of those acts. What distinguished him from me, however, was that I evaluate violence and don’t reject it on principle, but simply when it is likely to be more harmful than good.
And you are saying, most of the time you think it would do more harm than good?
Yes, in most contexts, on three counts, left violence fails as a worthy tactic. First, immediately it typically does harm rather than good, in undercutting support. Second, over a longer span, it can’t overcome the violence of the other side and instead only justifies more and more violence by them by polarizing the rank and file perpetrators into greater obedience to their rulers rather than into resistance. And third, even if violent tactics could somehow win change, and even minimize the immediate costs of doing so, and even galvanize support, it is too likely to distort the internal dynamics of opposition movements causing them to be undermined as vehicles to construct a new world. Indeed, using violence, much less celebrating violence as a central tactic, makes opposition movements likely to replicate in some modestly altered form the macho and authoritarian structures of the old world or even to introduce new structures that are worse than those of the old world.
I’m curious if you can think of cases where you think violence would be warranted, despite your previous response…
Sure. The usual is to protect someone being attacked – though, if possible, escape is generally a far better option. More interesting, how about this? In some workplace there is a strike. The company brings in strike breakers. Should the workers, amassed in their picket lines outside, block the way, and then fight back when the scabs try to force their way in?
To me this is not a matter of principle, and that is so, even if many of the scabs are very poor folks, just trying to get some income. Of course the best result is to organize the scabs to not enter. But suppose that is simply impossible. Now what? To me the question is tactical, not one of unyielding principle.
Will blocking the scabs, and warding off their blows, and even fighting back to rout them, cause the strike to gain or to lose support? Can we do it in a way that enlarges participation and avoids macho deterioration? If we decide yes, this is still very different then arguing a general adherence to violence.
Recalling the sixties, there were very committed and smart folks who used to go off into the countryside on weekends and practice shooting. They would even cut themselves and practice stitching themselves up – or so I heard. They undoubtedly felt like they were preparing for a coming revolution. They weren’t crazy. But in the U.S. it was, of course, idiocy. Somewhere else, it might make sense. It might even be unavoidable.
If tactically speaking, violence is most often counter-productive and thus generally off the table, at least in the current context, what do you think we should be doing that is worth doing, and that will get the job done, which is changing society?
Raising awareness and consciousness both inside one’s movements, and in broader society. Reinforcing positive values and generating desires for new relations. Generating a sense of possibility of attaining those new relations. Elaborating and spreading and continually refining and especially utilizing insights needed for large scale activism. Finally, providing movement and organizational vehicles to facilitate and enlarge the effectiveness of all efforts.
It follows that regarding tactics, in some local situation, we should ask would defending ourselves, or even undertaking offensive acts, or doing whatever other tactics are proposed, be beneficial or be harmful to accomplishing these more fundamental steps?
That sounds like a lot, and also not always easy to prioritize… so we should be doing what’s most important, that sounds logical. But what is most important?
No. I would say that doing what is most important sounds right, but it is too simple. For a particular person the calculus shouldn’t be just trying to evaluate importance in the abstract. Trying to do what is most important, even if one could confidently know what that is, often leads to a person doing something really valuable, but doing it so poorly, or for such a short time, that the benefits are minor. One should take into account, therefore, not only importance but also what one can plausibly do well and keep doing as required.
There is nothing revolutionary about doing important things so poorly that your efforts aren’t worth much. Nor is there anything revolutionary about exerting great effort on important tasks in ways that are so foreign to one’s own inclinations that one quickly burns out. Quality matters. So does duration. And choices about personal priorities should aim for both. In my own experience, it is remarkable how often people violate this obvious observation.
Care to make it a bit more concrete?
On the humorous side, back in the sixties there was a running joke. We used to say we should emulate great revolutionaries. This included, for many, Ho Chi Minh and Mao Tse Tung. One might take issue with that designation of them, but the key point is different. The truly macho were fond of saying, I live like both of my heroes. Ho Chi Minh stays up way late at night because he says that is when he gets his best work done. Mao Tse Tung, in contrast, gets up really early in the morning because it is when he gets his best work done. Me, I am a real revolutionary, so I do both.
Now, if not sleeping and instead working to the point of collapse could help achieve a new world in a sustained fashion, more power to the stance. But since such behavior is unsustainable and quickly devolves in quality, the stance is either posturing or joking, or unmitigated stupidity. Context counts, quality counts, persistence counts – as does importance.
Also from that epoch, and many since, many activists would say, what is the most important thing to be doing? I will do that! One answer, sometimes, was community organizing. So on deciding that was most important, people would leave behind whatever life trajectory they were on, move into some working class neighborhood, and try to organize. Often, they didn’t fit where they moved, either culturally or emotionally. Often, they had to do work that was completely ill suited to them. For many, even trying to make friends and then affect views and organize was foreign. Some did great, others okay, but many others burned out. We can admire the commitment they displayed, but not the result.
Let’s play devil’s advocate for a bit… your definition of revolutionary is certainly atypical compared to what you hear often on the left, from my experience. So why is your definition the right one? Since you provided yours, you may believe that what’s out there in terms of defining revolutionary is insufficient…
One historically very common definition was – essentially – anyone who agrees with me, or with someone who I celebrate as a leader, is revolutionary. Anyone who doesn’t agree with me, or revere my favored leader, isn’t revolutionary. It may sound like a joke, but it really isn’t.
This was Stalin’s formulation, ultimately – and Lenin’s too, and even many anarchists. If you look beyond contrary claims to actual choices, many folks of many different persuasions have in common that they operate implicitly with this definition. And of course we know where this approach leads. If those holding it are marginal, it will further their marginalization – typically turning them, as well, into sectarian and perhaps even fundamentalist actors. On the other hand, in cases where those with this definition actually succeed, you get varying degrees of regimentation, suppression, repression, etc.
I know folks who agree on the first part of the definition I offered, but who will then add, by way of what the person needs to be doing to be considered a revolutionary, that whatever they may think, and whatever good things they may do, they have to be operating in a revolutionary organization. The logic of this is impeccable as far as it goes. It is true that individuals don’t make history unless they are aligned and working together. But in practice, the definition has a tendency to revert back to you are either with me, and thus revolutionary, or against me, and thus not revolutionary.
For example, suppose we consider Joe. Joe favors revolutionary change in society’s basic institutions. So far so good. Joe says he is doing what he can, in a sustained way, to contribute. Okay, now we have to decide, do we think he is? With the second definition it becomes easy. Is Joe active in a revolutionary organization, If so, he is a revolutionary. But wait – what constitutes a revolutionary organization? Suppose I who like this definition say, well, my organization, of course. But Joe says, no, yours is a disaster, but I reply, no mine is wonderful and revolutionary and you are not in it, so you are not revolutionary. This is how this reverts to the earlier agree with me or you are a problem stance.
Without belaboring, this can get very ugly. Since my organization is revolutionary, I may start to think, everyone revolutionary should be in it, and any other organization that claims to be revolutionary is lying, and I should hope all the others fail, or I should even help them fail. This is a very slippery, suicidal slope.
So, I prefer a flexible definition which at least In its internal logic doesn’t have so high a likelihood of propelling a sectarian outcome.
So, how did you go from a high middle-class background, son of a corporate lawyer, into becoming a revolutionary? That surely is atypical…
My dad was quite liberal, my mother, a teacher, even more liberal, but you are right that following their hopes would have put me in a very different life. I suspect that every child, or nearly every child, is a kind of latent revolutionary. So I suppose I was too. Each child, however, initially lacks information to make an informed and broad social choice, or even to know there are choices, much less to navigate them. Some children never receive the information, but I got it when I went off to college. By my sophomore year, I was becoming highly politicized. By my junior year, I had gone from latent to actual.
That was in…?
I guess about 1967, I was in the class of 1969.
Forty seven years… That’s a long time to keep at this. But sadly, so far we haven’t got the revolution we want. Doesn’t that eat at you? Your self-confidence? Don’t you sometimes believe a different life path would have been a wiser choice?
A revolution isn’t something one person brings about – but yes, I do feel that my generation, which was for a few years way more revolutionary than many other generations have been in their choices, did not succeed nearly as I had hoped we would, and, instead, in some serious sense, failed – especially when you take into account that so many of us developed our understanding as far as we did before fading back into the everyday maintenance of horrible social relations.
I remember my parents and many others – including lots of very smart and caring fellow students – arguing that we revolutionaries were right about our outrage, we were sensible in our desires, but we were insane in our hopes. What’s the point, they would argue. Nearly all of you will sell out, they would predict. You can’t win anyway, so why not give up sooner, so as not to lose great benefits you could have? It is very sad that so many on the left in the Sixties eventually did just as the cynics, who outraged me at the time, predicted.
So in some sense it eats at you after all? Not so much your life path choice but the lack of reaching the goals we want?
Yes, it upsets me greatly. Indeed, it should upset everyone. And yes, there are times when I think, okay, look, it was a morally good choice, to become what some of us became, but given what I now know occurred over all those years, would I, in hindsight, have preferred to have become a physicist and to have avoided political and social struggle?
Thinking about that, I realize that given what I knew then, I couldn’t have done that and not unraveled as a moral and caring being. It is one thing to be ignorant because one is truly ignorant. Indeed, I suppose that is the logic of the slogan ignorance is bliss. It is another thing to know a lot, and to ignore what one knows. Odd, when you think about it, I suppose there is a sense in which what left media does is to obliterate bliss that is based on ignorance – except, of course, that to be suffering and ignorant is still suffering. And to understand and seek change can provide great sustenance, even while suffering.
Did this stuff actually ever cross your mind back in the day? I am pretty sure some people think quite similar thoughts… Heck, even I do, when I experience a moment of weakness…
It isn’t weakness, I don’t think. Rather, it is just looking around and assessing. Yes, I thought about it, probably for the first time in the early seventies. I remember asking myself – if you knew without any doubt that the world would still be a few haves and so many have-nots in fifty years, and also that nothing would change that ratio, ever, would you still want to devote yourself to fighting against the system? And my answer, then, to my own question, was yes, I would.
But it was a cheap and easy answer because I didn’t really believe that things were so hopeless then, and I don’t believe it now, either. When you really do believe it, the answer is much harder to arrive at and maintain. And, indeed, with the passing of years, I have come to think that it would be almost impossible for anyone to be an effective revolutionary with such defeatist beliefs.
I am inclined to think now, that is, that most people would not be on the side of the downtrodden at all with such hopeless beliefs, and that even those who would be, admirably, despite having such a defeatist mindset, would because of that mindset contribute little and might even obstruct achieving much. The problem with being so defeatist is that they wouldn’t be able to sincerely try to win due to their thinking that winning is impossible. And if you don’t try to win, well, then you won’t. However, again, since I have not experienced the hopelessness at the root of the query, my attitude back in the sixties and my attitude now are both from an outsider, not from someone who felt so defeatist.
So, how do these choices, these commitments , affect your daily life? Your relationships with people, what you do during your time of leisure, etc.?
Suppose you are sincerely and profoundly committed to helping accomplish x. Whatever x may be, that commitment will mean that in your daily life, x will be a factor. You will make social decisions very often in light of how the choice will help accomplish x. If x is replacing the defining institutions of society with new ones, then when deciding your actions, both long and short term, you will weigh that factor very heavily, and often even most heavily.
And that is exactly how my commitments affect me. They mainly govern what I write, how I try to sustain and build projects and institutions, what I favor to publish at Z, some of what I read, my work style, my additional undertakings, and so on. All this has been true since way back in college. But I also avoid burnout – or I have so far, at any rate – by doing some things that are closer to my intrinsic tastes, such as kayaking and playing Go, reading popular science and mysteries, as well as watching TV.
You almost make it sound easy… so no doubts about being a revolutionary, ever?
I have no more doubted the need for a revolutionary transformation than I have doubted whether gravity will still pull us toward the earth tomorrow.
We have a world with billions of people whose lives are stunted and controlled in ways that are utterly unnecessary. Of course we need to replace its basic underlying structures. On the other hand, deciding what specific structures a revolution should replace, and what ought to be constructed, and by what means, that takes further thought.
I don’t doubt my own choice to be a revolutionary, per se, either. More, it was never something about which I reasoned, should I or shouldn’t I? Instead, as I learned more about my world and its history, becoming revolutionary just happened – maybe in 1966 or 1967. There was no dramatic fork in the road that I had to consciously navigate. Later I thought about it, but not when it happened.
If it wasn’t a choice, what was it then? Did your personal circumstances compel you to take this path then, with the sixties taking place and all?
I guess it is a little like when someone says they became a singer, dancer, ball player, artist, or scientist – because it is just who they are.
Who I would have been, given my circumstances and options, if I had not become conscious of so much injustice, was a physicist. But who I became, having become conscious of so much injustice, was about as far from my scientific inclinations as it could have been.
I became not just a revolutionary, but a writer – and that occurred despite my lack of relevant writing talents – and I also became a media project creator and worker, which is also very far from my innate inclinations. These were not options that would have attracted me in a just world, but they did capture me in our unjust world.
So, would you tell others to make the same choices, go all in, and become revolutionaries themselves?
I describe to others the kind of world we live in. I explain the disastrous results of its persisting without change. I suggest the kinds of change I think would give vastly better results. And I make a case for how we might contribute to that kind of change. Then anyone hearing all that, has to decide if they agree. And then, also, if they are going to act on the views.
One of the most interesting things you have devoted your time to is the Z Media Institute, which to me sounded very much like “Revolution University” in a sense, and it sounded exciting! The feedback from former students I read was also very inspiring. Was that the goal, to teach people how to be a revolutionary?
Well, ZMI as it was called, had two priorities. On the one hand, as the name indicates, the aim was to provide tools, skills, and related insights and confidence that could help people contribute to alternative media. The second aim, though, as you say, was more general. And that was to convey analysis, vision, and strategy insights to help people contribute to social change, even as revolutionaries, whether working in media or other areas.
I have taught groups at ZMI, and elsewhere too, over the years, about society and visionary alternatives. I would often get them to think through and also agree on a great deal. I would then point out that if they have the courage of the convictions they just enunciated, it would make them revolutionary. Some just ignored this observation. Others were shocked and moved by it.
Again, I suspect that if I had known, back in my college days, that forty or fifty years later the world would still be insanely unjustly stacked on behalf of the rich and powerful, which it certainly is, I would nonetheless have followed the path I did. For me, it was unavoidable. But I also have no trouble empathizing with someone who soberly and honestly thinks that fundamental change just isn’t going to come about, and who therefore also thinks that to devote oneself to fundamental change, however morally worthy doing so might be, is a fool’s errand.
You are not saying you think people who claim that seeking fundamental change is a waste of time, are right, are you?
No. Understanding them and empathizing with them, is not the same as agreeing with them. First, seeking fundamental change eliminates all kinds of alienation and self denial from one’s own life, even if it also has personal costs. For some people the former will outweigh the latter. Thus, you might do it, among other reasons, literally for personal benefit.
Second, history is long and complex. To say that all that has been done in the past fifty years to try to foster fundamental change was a waste of time because we haven’t yet had fundamental change, misunderstands that victory rests on lots and lots of short run failures whose lessons and results accumulate, setting the stage for better results, later. It also wrongly minimizes the immense changes that have been won, even if they have fallen short of fundamental, for example, around gender, gay rights, and race, ecology too, among other gains.
What are your feelings about people like that, who basically agree that there is a lot of misery out there, and who agree it’s horrible, but who nevertheless don’t become revolutionary, for whatever reason?
I disagree with their choice but I understand it. As to my impression of such people, again, it is different to reject being a revolutionary on grounds of sincerely doubting the possibility of winning a worthy new society – and to reject being a revolutionary for personal gain or to avoid risks while merely rationalizing that it is due to doubting the prospects of success. Sometimes, even often, you can’t tell for sure what is behind a person’s views – so you give them the benefit of the doubt. Other times…you know.
How do we know what kind of individual someone is? Is there a trick to find out?
One big clue, is whether a person not only says he or she believes that fundamental change is impossible, but also reveals by his or her words and demeanor that he or she wants that depressing belief to be true, rather than hoping it is false.
One person says, or at least their demeanor says, we can’t have a revolution so I am not joining up, and hooray for that. The next person says, I can’t stand that I can’t see a process that might succeed, and I really hope I am wrong about this sad belief and that such a process becomes evident and works, but, meanwhile, I will forlornly stick to my current activities.
Peripherally related to the above, what about the whole revolutionary change vs reformist change? People who say we should alleviate the current ills instead of fighting for fundamental changes… How do you feel about reformists?
It is broadly the same issue.
A reformist tries to win changes that benefit people now, but in ways that don’t lead toward new defining structures. If the reformist wants to be ratified in his or her stance, and so wants revolutionary efforts to always fail, then I feel hostile. Such an attitude means, usually, that the person is a reformist due to caring about the pains of some constituencies, but also due to explicitly not wanting a new system. They are not reformist due to thinking it would be great to have a new system, but it is out of reach.
If, on the other hand, a reformist does good work with exemplary effort, to help deserving people, and also wishes more fundamental gains were possible, and would joyously celebrate any evidence that such gains were possible, then I am cordial and very positive.
Many revolutionaries don’t realize that a reformist can be courageous, serious, hard working, and effective at improving people’s lives. And, for that matter, that someone claiming to be a revolutionary can be less admirable on every one of those axes than some reformists. But it is obviously true.