Thursday, December 1, 2016
The Triumph and Tragedy of Revolution
November 15, 2016
It has been only a bare week after the election of the most authoritarian-minded president in American history, an unapologetic bigot to whom immigrants, Muslims, gay people, women, and minorities are lesser beings, an avaricious businessman whose career illustrates the very worst of American capitalism, enriching only himself while short-changing workers, contractors, and consumers. Those across a broad spectrum of political opinion, those with any humanity at all, must lament the elevation of Donald Trump and struggle to prevent progress from being rolled back in every arena of public life.
Yet at this time in which fascists and racists are assuming high governmental posts, a time when, if ever, a popular united front seems required, I choose to present a critique of the history of the left. I used to hear that even some conservative Italians used to vote Communist because the Communists were the only politicians who were not corrupt. We have not only our program but also our honesty and our candor to distinguish us from the selfish reactionary opportunists. We have as well the record of centuries to testify that steady organization and pressure from the masses can move history forward. First the aristocrats, then the middle class, and finally the laborers have gained power along with a greater share of what they produce. We have eliminated slavery, child labor, and prohibitions on homosexuality and have granted women the vote and workers the right to organize. No step forward in human society has ever occurred at the urging of conservatives; rather, progress has always come from those at first labeled radical, then liberal, then mainstream. This pattern will not be readily ended.
Yet the history of the left is not entirely noble. The student of Greek history will note that “tyrants” arose from the popular party and that autocrats throughout history often enjoy high levels of support. “Democracy” fails when the majority chooses to oppress the minority. We have just witnessed in America the very first candidate who doubts the value of democracy, who forms mutual admiration societies with dictators, who fears education and celebrates white supremacy. Why, then criticize the revolutionaries? Because we can afford to be more honest. The facts and the trends of history still favor us even after the rise to power of a hateful and ridiculous man.
I have always called myself a revolutionary socialist. The qualifying adjective does not imply that change can come only through an armed uprising, but only that to be effective the revolution must be radical and thorough-going, not the patchwork ameliorations of European social democracy. What is required is social ownership of the means of production; anything less could provide only symptomatic relief for the problems of capitalism. I do believe that a ruling class will never cede power if another viable choice exists. Many factors short of bloodshed can constitute sufficient force: an army that will no longer obey a tyrannical regime (as in Portugal in 1974), the increasing financial cost of maintaining the status quo (probably the major motive for Britain’s giving up on empire), or, everybody’s favorite, massive and well-organized resistance that makes governing impossible (as in Tunisia in 2011). Frederick Douglass was right when he said, “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle.”
I cannot claim to be a pacifist (though I admire pacifists) because I think I would be justified in resisting an assault on me or on my loved ones (ineffectual though my resistance might be). If this is allowed for an individual, how much more it must be for a society when the well-being of multitudes is involved. Oppression and institutional violence deprive people of the lives they deserve no less than physical brutality. The slave may be fed daily, but who would doubt his right to revolt?
Indeed, evidence seems to point to the potency of blood when argument has proven futile. John Brown declared with action his belief in the Biblical principle that “without shedding of blood there is no remission [of sins].”  One may regard Old Ossawatomie as an extremist, but Abraham Lincoln said very nearly the same in his eloquent Second Inaugural Address: “If God wills that it [war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’"
Would the United States have become independent without war? (Canada, of course, did.) Or the French have rid themselves (temporarily) of the Bourbons? The executed martyrs of the Easter Uprising in Dublin, after plunging into an unwinnable military contest, enjoyed vastly multiplied influence in death. And, in the USA, who can deny that the deaths of children in the Birmingham church bombing in 1963 and of college-age volunteers during Freedom Summer in 1964 hastened the progress of civil rights? Or that the violence in America’s cities stimulated the so-called War on Poverty”? Surely the deaths at Kent State advanced the struggle against the war in Vietnam. At a state-sponsored correctional services seminar, I was told that only after Rockefeller’s murderous assault on the inmates of Attica in 1971 were inmates granted twenty-six of their twenty-seven demands. These are only a few examples of an all-but-self-evident principle.
Yet the very efficacy of blood as a catalyst for social change testifies to its dangerous power, equal, as Freud came to believe, with that of sexuality, in the unconscious. Any human can feel the blood boil as provocation mounts, and most any human may, in the heat of the moment, act with unjustifiable force. Anarchists like Sorel and Malatesta celebrated violence, as did some in the IWW and later in the Weather Underground. If such figures seem to occupy only the fringe of American political thought, one need only cite the homage paid to military veterans, revered specifically for their use of force, by mainstream opinion.
The invocation of such a formidable psychological force is highly hazardous. The pacifists would have us believe that the practice of violence itself brutalizes the sensibility and the oppressed may easily become an oppressor after a bloody victory. Again history offers countless examples. Hundreds of thousands at any rate died in la Terreur and the suppression of the revolt in the Vendée that followed the French Revolution. The Irish Free State in its attempts to consolidate its position killed more combatants than had died in the War of Independence. Even among partisans of socialism (indeed, especially among us) the monstrous crimes of Stalin, Mao, and the Khmer Rouge and the lesser betrayals of self-described people’s regimes in Vietnam, Laos, Cuba, Venezuela and elsewhere must be admitted, examined, and analyzed. Yet each of these struggles was fundamentally just at the start; each overturned a violent and viciously backward regime.
What then is to be done? One warning sign of a wrong turn is the rise of cult of personality. In political groups as in religious movements one does well to beware any leader touted as irreplaceable and superior to all others, with the guaranteed answer to any question.  Yet many throughout history seem to seek such leaders, to voluntarily cede individual decision-making and to become instead units in a larger system. This is the distinctive appeal of the dictator and the cult-leader; it must be no part of the left. No person is always or predictably right; no country owns virtue. This is not to say that distinctions do not exist. They do, and the responsible citizen will often select the least of evils.
Secondly, the left must realize that the people’s interest is almost always for peace. While a mortal struggle may on occasion seem unavoidable, it must remain a genuine last resort, used with the greatest caution. It is wise to abandon the romantic appeal even of violent poses. Suffering is bad and thus war is bad and only in the rarest cases might it be less bad than peace.
Even in our present state of submission to the plutocrats it is necessary to recall the history of people’s movements, glorious and hopeful, but on occasion dismal as well. Though progressives have led all social advances achieved by our species, they have also proven all-too-human in victory. American radicals have at times emulated the authoritarian model of Stalinism, mindlessly enlisting their best efforts in support of tyrants and murderers. While many have selflessly pursued a vision of betterment, those in leadership ranging from union leaders to heads of state have sometimes sought self-aggrandizement no less than those on the right whose philosophy explicitly values selfishness. It can never be wise to cede one's own discernment to a "great man" however charismatic. Great disasters have arisen from those who claimed to represent people's power. It may seem far from reality to warn in these reactionary days against excesses from revolutionaries, but every share of actual power brings new hazards and pitfalls. The broadest human self-interest is given form by socialism, but its advocates must always guard against the darker regions of the backbrain. These will never vanish, but we can cultivate our gardens, making vegetables out of earth and sweat and tending with equal care our solicitude for all others, including opponents.
1. Hebrews 9:22. The passage is describing the earlier Mosaic practice of animal sacrifice and its replacement by the higher order sacrifice of Christ.
2. The only unsatisfied demand was that rebels might be allowed to travel to a sympathetic foreign country. (Algeria was a refuge for some Panthers and for Tim Leary at the time.)
3. Apart from leadership from the Comintern or from the Fourth Internationale, one may note such personality cults as those around Bob Avakian of the Revolutionary Communist Party.