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Recipe for Revolution
Dana Williams
Radicals often speak of “revolution”, not as an abstract process of widespread societal change, but “The Revolution” as a discrete event. This trivializes the work needed to bring about revolution. Those of us who are serious about revolution and believe in its necessity need to appreciate the long hard work ahead of us, and to strategize intelligently to get there.

The term “revolution” is often misapplied to rebellions, which almost always don't succeed or live up to their promises. Rebellions, riots,or insurrections are not revolution. They are, as MLK said, the voices of the unheard. Just voices, not an actual realization for those who speak the voices. In order for revolution to be real, those who rebel must have ways in which to sustain the conditions and spirit that rebellion tries to create.

Peggy Kornegger notes in her essay “Anarchism: The Feminist Connection” that the Spanish Civil War, and the large-scale successes of the CNT-FAI (the two main anarchist organizations) during that civil war were due to the longterm struggle of working class folk who organized themselves for nearly 75 years before into affinity groups and worker councils, and who taught each other how to think and act in liberatory ways. When the opportunity came along, societal revolution was merely second nature.

When considering that the segue to that revolution took decades, we'll begin to realize that our society has also been through on-going revolutions for centuries. People have gained more rights and freedoms through hard struggle in the US, from the time of the US Constitution that gave power to White men who owned property and few others. Women, Blacks, Native Americans, other people of color, poor Whites, and many others have fought overtime to obtain what was theoretical their's all along.

This country is much more democratic and free than it was 50 years ago. Of course, that's no excuse for cashing in our chips and claiming there's nothing else to do. Reactionary segments of the country have returned the trajectory of the country to their initial course since the time of the late-60's and early-70's. Thus, we can see that there have been many reforms which have broadened the freedoms in this country and have, in essence, civilized it.

Along the way, there have been a number of rebellions that have scared the ruling class into action-- and not only suppression, but appeasement. Elites realized in the mid-60's that if they did not pass Civil Rights legislation in Congress that a growing Civil Rights movement was gaining so much momentum in the South that it could have snowballed to utter insurrection. Combined with the urban riots in the North during the later part of that decade, elites began responding by tossing Blacks a few bones, while skirting the true issues of economic and political repression that kept them down. Even in recent times, events like the anti-WTO protests that rocked Seattle, Washington in later 1999 were a people's rebellion that snuck-up on elites and forced them to cease and desist (if only temporarily) and make concessions in response.

It can be claimed that superficial reforms restricted the revolutionary nature of this social movement, as it did other movements. But, do all reforms have to end in acquiescence or haphazard disillusion?

Michael Albert claims that activists should work for what he calls “non-reformist reforms”. He distinguishes between reforms and “reformism”. Reforms are things that temporarily or immediately end bad things. Reformism is an ideology or attitude that treats a reform as an end itself. Thus, stopping a war is a reform, while thinking that only stopping wars themselves will create justice is reformism (because it ignores the continued existence of a military-industrial complex, international economic inequities, etc.) Albert's conclusion is that we should work for reforms that end immediate ailments, and then broaden the focus to more macro-scale problems, and so forth. The continual re-directioning of society away from a violent, alienating, repressive, and unequal one towards one that is diverse, nonviolent, empowering, and democratic is, in practice, the process of revolution.

A recipe for revolution should include a vision that, as Noam Chomsky puts it, expands the floor of the cage. If you can continually expand the cage walls and push outwards, you'll eventually reach a point where the cage walls are so easy to poke through or are so weak as to be useless or don't even exist in any practical sense. Such a vision should realize the widespread societal change is an ongoing process that moves in a progressive direction to the extent that progressive social movements push it in that direction.

Thus, we advance revolution through the tagteam process of reform and rebellion. The slow and the fast, the safe and the radical, the easier and the more difficult, the mundane and the exciting. This jigsawing trajectory will allow people to find political space in which to empower themselves; reforms can grant greater freedoms that make rebellion easier, while rebellions can draw in large numbers of people to push through larger reforms with greater ease.

In many respects, this is an advocation of working within and outside the system. It recognizes that people have diverse comfort levels of engagement, and a revolutionary movement needs to recognize the usefulness of both reform and rebellion, and thus learn to appreciate those who work for the more “non-reformist reforms” as much as it appreciates the insurrectionists.

But, it is important for all revolutionaries to note that neither rebellions or reforms by themselves are enough. Reforms alone can't transform society because they can dullen the desire of people to resist and dream of an even greater future. Rebellions alone without quantifiable and tangible change for more of the population often only serve as self-involved expressions that can be more about thrills than about change. Reforms and rebellion need to have the vision to be able to articulate what goals are desired and what means are necessary and acceptable by which to reach them.

We cannot allow rebellion and reforms become fetishized ends in themselves. If we are serious about revolution, we have to appreciate the various methods in takes to destroy the dam... both the small cracks and large holes are important. We must exploit all possible weaknesses.

Further, we ought to not only oppose the dominant system and its smorgasbord of oppressive institutions, but to also create a new world in the shell of the old. We must work to create alternative methods and institutions that fulfill our own needs and desires that do not behave in the present fashion. Thus, we need to envision economic, social, cultural, and political organization, institutions, methods, approaches, and attitudes that are non-authoritarian, nonviolent, just, empowering, democratic, and diverse. This is sometimes referred to as “dual power”-- gaining the strength to operate equally and independently of the dominant system.

Finally, as Emma Goldman is purported to have said: it's not my revolution if I can't dance to it. People need to feel that revolution is not just necessary, but a worthwhile and fun goal. Also the methods we use will dictate the outcome. So, if we utilize a top-heavy leadership or equally repressive means to enact revolution, the revolution will only be a shell game for what Pete Seeger predicted when he sardonically remarked: “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

By simultaneously dismantling the present order and replacing it with a just one that fulfills the same human needs, revolution becomes a very legitimate and imaginable goal. By living the dreams of revolution in an impassioned, realistic, honest, and liberatory way, we guarantee that the revolution we will achieve is the same as the one we desire.

05/09/03