Letters at 3AM: Revolution, Part III

Imagine You can't have a revolution if you can't imagine one. Or if you won't imagine one. We are force fed a million trivial dreams on big and small screens so that we won't discover in ourselves a great dream, a dream of justice and community. The odds are always lousy, the situation always desperate. That's been true for every revolution, no matter what its nature (economic, social, political, cultural -- revolutions come in many ways). The powerful always have seemingly endless resources, the powerless often have nothing but their dreams and resolve. Yes, sometimes that's not enough: Sometimes the timing is bad, the luck is bad, and the effort dies. But nothing is ever won, nothing is even begun, without audacity and imagination. Talk Revolutions don't happen unless people talk about them. This simple fact is impossible to overestimate. Talk has always been the single most essential revolutionary tool, whether the revolution was Jefferson's, Lenin's, Ghandi's, Castro's. People discussing, arguing, even fantasizing with each other, about what can be done and what they're willing to do - this is the breeding ground of fundamental shifts in society. It's simple: If you're not willing to talk with each other about revolution, it's not going to happen. Independence Don't wait for leaders. It's your revolution or it isn't anybody's. If you and your friends and your work mates won't address what's unjust in your lives and take whatever first basic steps you can think of -- then forget it. A great American radical, Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926), was once speaking at a rally of Southern sharecroppers. Someone yelled, "Brother Debs, stay here and lead us into the Promised Land!" Debs said, "Brothers and sisters, if I could lead you in, somebody else could lead you out." In the Koran it says that if you take one step toward Allah, Allah will take two toward you. Many things in life occur this way. Every heartfelt and committed step taken, will awaken and draw like-minded people in unpredictable ways. You don't need to wait for a leader if you become your own leaders. Study Revolutions don't happen without self education. As you begin to imagine revolution, and as you speak to your friends about revolution, you'll discover enormous holes in your knowledge. Those holes aren't there by accident. State-supported schools (universities, especially) will not teach you about the economic mechanisms that keep you in your place, nor about the history of how others have confronted similar systems in the past. (And if you think Marxism is a threat to these mechanisms, then ask yourself why so many Marxists are teaching in our universities.) There are still a lot of books in libraries and bookstores that can give you a handle on what you need to know. How do you find the books? Not by trusting anybody else's list. As you talk, examine the holes in your knowledge, and search for what can fill them. It's not as daunting as it sounds. A study group of four people, each reading different books and meeting once a week to talk about them, can cover a lot of ground in a short time. And the people who can read can talk to the people who can't. Sounds like dull work, I know. But you've got to dig in the ground to build a foundation. There's no other way. (The poet Ezra Pound taught that knowing a half-dozen books well will put you far ahead of those who know a little about a hundred books.) Tolerating ignorance in yourself or in your community is just another way to surrender to powerlessness. And expecting your oppressors to educate you is really stupid. Have you noticed that they only educate you enough for the work they've slotted you to do? And when the unemployment of certain segments of society is to their advantage, they educate you just enough to be unemployed. This, by the way, isn't confined to the poor. I can't tell you how many "name" writers I know -- children of the middle class and affluent, mostly -- who've never read the Constitution, know virtually nothing about the labor struggles that gave them most of their economic benefits, know little about how corporate business is depleting our resources, and know less about the Bible and the Koran, which are still the two most potent, volatile political and spiritual books in the world -- yet, somewhere in their closets, they have one or more college degrees. It rather confines their subject matter, wouldn't you agree? So it's no wonder that their writing usually doesn't increase your knowledge much. In every revolutionary movement of any consequence, ordinary people have taken it upon themselves to learn -- and to teach their neighbors both what they've learned and, more importantly, how to learn. In the Sixties, for instance, a major impact of the Black Panthers on their communities was through organizing food kitchens and neighborhood schools. This method isn't confined to economic and political revolutions: The extraordinary skills of jazz musicians -- cultural revolutionaries every one -- were learned in this way before there ever were jazz courses in schools. My only caution, if you get this far, is not to fall in love with any particular theory too quickly. Find an opposing theory, learn it too, and discuss both. This method can protect you from opportunists who would lead you for their own ends. ActionStudy is necessary, or a revolution will have neither depth nor a future. But study is not enough. The other great school of revolution is direct action. It is through action, and not living near one another or having a common culture, that a sense of community is forged. It is through action, not being of the same race or class, that solidarity is attained. It is through action that people learn their capabilities, their limits, and how to transcend their limits. Action can take many forms. Small and large. Private and public. Noisy and quiet. Legal and illegal. Violent and nonviolent. (I have written elsewhere about why I believe violence is a dead end -- no pun intended.) But essentially action in a revolutionary struggle boils down to three types: political, direct, and indirect. Political action usually takes the form of asking or pressuring politicians to do things for you. But what politicians can give, they can also take back. Even a casual look at this year's news will teach you that, though you could have learned it by delving into the political history of this or any country. But, as history will also teach, if your movement gains enough momentum politicians will follow you -- not because they like or agree with you, but because they suck up to anyone who has the power of the moment. Thus you can't trust them when you're winning any more than you can now -- so what do you need them for? But the worst effect of political action is that it's a distraction from direct action. Direct action is just that: Doing something yourself, directly, about the problems that confront you and your community. The people taking advantage of your situation -- at work, in your community, and in what is supposed to be your government -- are frightened of you. They live in as much fear as you do, and that's what all their manipulation is about. They're frightened that you'll learn the mechanisms by which they take advantage. They're frightened that you'll learn how fragile their setup really is (beneath its formidable surface), and how easily it can be disrupted. More than anything else they're frightened of that moment when you cease to be frightened. The boss is frightened of how easily his/her authority can be confronted with organization and courage. The corporation is frightened that when you learn the real cost of its products, you won't buy. (A corporation that can't sell its stuff is a paper tiger indeed.) The governor is frightened of waking up and seeing 100,000 parents sitting with locked arms on the front lawn demanding that the schools teach, and a say in what and how they teach. The cops are frightened that you'll stop taking drugs. The authorities are frightened that they'll pick up the phone and give an order, but nobody on the other end of the line will follow it. (That's not a pipe dream, that's how the Soviet Bloc finally fell.) They're all frightened that their threats of imprisonment, low wages, and/or unemployment won't frighten you anymore (since that's what you're getting anyway). Finally, there's what could be called indirect action -- which consists of being who you really feel yourself to be, rather than who others would like you to be. Being it, and insisting upon it -- from this one step all others proceed. All these steps are within the power of anyone with enough basic skills to read this article. That power is the power to begin.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

Close
alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.