AFTER BERNIE Sanders started shaking up mainstream politics with his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, a Vox poll in January found that a majority of Americans thought that the “political revolution” he talked about might, in fact, “be necessary to redistribute money from the wealthiest Americans to the middle class.”
This is a remarkable statement in a country where people are brought up learning that they live in the “world’s greatest democracy.” The reason this mindset has come about is the hard experience of seeing the people in charge of political and social institutions be unwilling or unable to address critical issues like growing inequality and climate change.
Among people under the age of 30, an overwhelming 68 percent agreed that a revolution might be necessary–probably because for them, the political system seems too broken to deal even with issues that strike them as basic questions of common sense and human decency.
For instance, a majority of Americans in the so-called Millennial generation support immigrant rights, the Black Lives Matter movement and transgender people’s right to use the bathroom they prefer.
But they’re stuck in a country seemingly held hostage by an aging white Republican minority that actually thinks Barack Obama is a secret Muslim and that two people with penises can’t really love each other.
This political dysfunction has now been concentrated into a presidential election featuring a “choice” between the two most widely disliked candidates in recent history. As theWashington Post put it in a recent headline, “For millennial voters, the Clinton vs. Trump choice ‘feels like a joke.'”
And Sanders–the only politician who seemed genuine to many young people–has now joined the circus. Not only is he supporting Hillary Clinton against the Republican bigot and buffoon Donald Trump, he’s telling supporters with a straight face that voting for Clinton–the textbook definition of a status-quo candidate–is a way to “continue the political revolution.”
For the millions who enthusiastically supported Sanders, there is an important question to answer in the coming months and years–long after they decide to either support the Green Party’s Jill Stein in November or hold their nose and vote for Clinton or skip voting altogether.
That question is whether they will continue to see revolution as a real thing to work toward–or follow Sanders into reducing it into just another empty advertising slogan.
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THE MOST important changes in U.S. history–from winning independence to ending slavery to winning greater equality for African Americans and others–have come not from voting for one rich guy over another, but by taking to the streets, going on strike, organizing our classmates and workmates, and so on.
Most protest movements don’t become revolutions, of course. That only happens when the grievances of masses of people can neither be effectively addressed nor squelched by those in power, leading much wider layers of the population to decide that the time to act has finally come.
Revolutions are rare enough that most people never see them coming. But they are regular occurrences throughout modern history: from the American and French Revolutions of the late 1700s that broke the power of kings and aristocracies, to the “Arab Spring” uprisings of recent years that unleashed a wave of first hopeful and then horrible changes across the Middle East, with more to come.
Just as geologists would have no idea about the tectonic plates beneath our feet if not for the occasional earthquake, it’s impossible to understand the forces that shape our world without looking at the revolutions that created them.
One of the most important victories for human progress in modern times–the abolition of slavery–was begun with the Haitian Revolution at the end of the 18th century and decisively won by the American Civil War in the middle of the 19th.
Another was the ending of the direct ownership of much of the globe by a handful of countries through colonialism–a struggle whose early sparks came 100 years ago in revolutions in Mexico and Ireland and that, many years later, continued with revolts across Asia and Africa in the decades after the Second World War.
Then there are the great defeated socialist revolutions of the 20th century–most famously in Russia in 1917, the only socialist revolution to create a workers’ state that survived for any length of time.
The Russian monarchy was overthrown in 1917, and the world saw the first steps toward worker-run democracy. But within a decade, the country’s isolation and poverty led to the rise of a new form of dictatorship that worked for the rest of the century to convince most people that socialism was the opposite of democracy.
Unless we think we’ve arrived at the “end of history”–a popular idea among defenders of the status quo that has been proved false many times–there will be more revolutions around the world, quite possibly including in the U.S. If anything, the pace of world events seems to be speeding up these days.
Since we’re all going to be bombarded for the next two months with proclamations that the Trump-versus-Clinton election is a world-historic event, this seems like a good time to look at some actual world-historic events to imagine what a future revolution in the U.S. might look like.
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IN TERMS OF sheer numbers, our side has the decisive edge, as the poet Percy Shelly recognized back in 1819 when he wrote The Mask of Anarchy:
Rise like lions after slumber
In unfathomable number
Shake your chains to earth like dew
That in sleep have fallen on you
Ye are many, they are few.
But in normal times, the few have a lot ways of keeping the many in check–from police repression to working people’s fear of losing their jobs.
Relatively small groups can win important gains–like the protesters continuing to take the streets against racist police violence, or the 39,000 Verizon workers who went on strike last spring to preserve their working conditions and set an example for the whole labor movement.
But the system depends on most people most of the time being unwilling and unable to take such an active role in shaping their own futures.
Then one day, that activist minority is suddenly no longer a minority–often to the great surprise of not only the rulers, but the ruled.
On January 25, 2011, Egyptian revolutionaries expected the usual hundreds to turn out to a protest against police repression. Instead, they were surrounded by tens of thousands, which in the coming days became hundreds of thousands and then millions–including workers in industries like textiles, whose strikes threatened the profits of the elite.
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A REVOLUTION in the U.S. would see not just larger versions of important recent protest movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, but millions of workers going on strike against Walmart, Amazon and other engines of American capitalism.
A revolution, wrote Leon Trotsky in his beautiful History of the Russian Revolution, is the “forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.”
Can’t see it happening here? In his book, Trotsky described how when a Russian general launched a coup against the revolution, telegraph workers intercepted his communications and relayed the plans to railroad workers, who made sure the trains carrying his troops never got to their destination.
Now imagine revolutionary workers at Comcast and Verizon blocking the wireless and fiber-optic networks of local police departments attempting to arrest protest leaders or break up Occupy-style encampments.
This is one of the ironies of working-class revolutions: People take over the tools they’ve created for their bosses and use them for the common good.
In Mexico, for example, railroad workers seized the locomotives that were importing machinery and products of industrial capitalism from the U.S., and turned them into a transportation network for Pancho Villa’s revolutionary army.
In a future American revolution, tech workers can take the software that companies use to send employees home on days when business is projected to be slow, and instead track surplus products to direct them to households where they are needed. Airbnb workers can share their database of vacant housing with homeless organizers–if that’s even necessary after the revolution is done taking over the empty second and third homes of rich people.
New leaders emerge in revolutions–not the typical ones who have been groomed for decades by professional handlers, but genuine leaders earn the trust and respect of their communities and who finally get the chance to show the world how much more talented they are than the mediocrities normally in charge.
Toussaint L’Ouverture was a slave who took part in the Haitian Revolution–within months, he rose to become a general who outsmarted and defeated the armies of France, Spain and Britain.
Emiliano Zapata was a horse trainer whose longstanding demands for peasant rights were turned into a national rallying cry by the Mexican Revolution.
While Northern generals wasted the early years of the American Civil War stalling for time, Harriet Tubman used her long experience in the Underground Railroad to sneak into the South as a spy and lead daring raids that freed thousands of slaves.
Perhaps future American revolutionary leaders will emerge from among the women on hunger strike inside immigration detention centers–or the students leading walkouts in their high schools against the endless use of standardized tests.
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EVERY REVOLUTION faces challenges that determine how far it can go–for example, how to create more effective and democratic governing structures than the systems they are trying to replace.
The most important accomplishment of the Russian Revolution was the creation of workers’ councils, known in Russian as “soviets.” The councils, extending from workplaces and neighborhoods up to regional and national bodies, replaced career politicians and the state bureaucracy with a system of instantly recallable delegates. It was able to impose democratic control over previously unaccountable institutions like the military, police and private industry.
These workers’ councils, which have appeared in different forms in many later revolutions, became the heart of the revolutionary vision of socialism–which isn’t about “the government owning everything,” as the right-wing complaint goes, but instead everyone becoming the government.
Socialized medicine, for example, in a future American revolution wouldn’t just mean having better access to health care. It would mean hospitals and clinics being collectively run by doctors, nurses and patients.
Then there is the task of taking on the oppressions based on race, gender, nationality and religion, which are a vital tool used by ruling classes to keep their working majority divided.
There will be many forms of oppression to combat on many different levels in U.S. society–from opening up prisons filled with Black and Latino victims of a racist criminal justice system to finding ways to challenge the ignorant attitudes of potential revolutionaries toward women, Muslims and others.
Finally, every revolution faces the question of how to spread beyond its national borders in order to survive. Haitians ended slavery and won independence from the colonial powers, but they faced a hostile, racist world that punished them for centuries for their revolution. Russia inspired workers around the world, but remained isolated in a capitalist global economy, which doomed the revolution to eventual defeat.
Future revolutions will face similar questions, particularly how to tackle the urgent questions of climate change that can only be accomplished by a dramatic global shift toward sustainable economies and renewable energy.
But where does all this talk about a future revolution leave us today, when revolutions–not the bogus rhetoric about them, but the real kind–seem very far away?
It’s important for people who want to fight for change to understand how vital revolutions are to that process. Revolutions are not only possible, but inevitable in the long run.
The truth is that political systems are almost always “broken” in the sense that they don’t serve the needs of the majority. It’s in the struggles of today against inequality and injustice–never as large as they should be–that individuals and organizations can become more effective organizers and leaders for the hopefully larger fights tomorrow.
Bringing those leaders together in explicitly socialist organization–to share their experiences, learn the lessons of past struggles, absorb Marxist theory that can explain the world and collaborate to provide a left-wing pole of attraction for new groups of people becoming revolutionaries–is a critical part of the socialist struggle today.
But the organizing of today must be guided by a vision of what we’re working toward–those rare but regular revolutionary moments when ordinary people have a chance to change the course of history.