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Old-Fashioned Political Activism Doesn't Work

by John Spritzler

November 10, 2013

If you have ever read an article aiming to make you angry at some government or corporation by exposing some vile wrong-doing of it, then you've experienced at least one author's old-fashioned politcal activism. And if you've ever been asked by some organization, that avoids talking about the necessity and possibility of revolution, to attend a demonstration or sign a petition or vote against some particular governmental or corporate wrong-doing, then you've encountered an old-fashioned political activist organization. If you are, yourself, an old-fashioned political activist, as I once was, then this article is for you.

Old-fashioned political activism accomplishes many things, but unfortunately the one thing it doesn't accomplish is to stop the vile wrong-doings. Unjust war follows unjust war ad infinitum. One form of terrible oppression (such as slavery in the United States) may end only to be replaced by another form (such as the older Jim Crow laws or the current Jim Crow prison system.) Legalized racism may end in apartheid South Africa only to be replaced by even worse oppression of black South Africans. Twelve hour working days were supposedly ended by an 8-Hour law but many people are still forced to work similarly long hours at two or more jobs to survive. Propertyless men and all women and all African-Americans won the right to vote, same as rich white men; but what good has it done them? Economic inequality has grown to obscene levels; in a nation with multi-billionaires, millions of Americans suffer severe poverty and worry if they'll have food and shelter and health care. Piecemeal reform, which many old-fashioned political activists hoped would eventually change the world, appears not likely to do so: Mondragon--the world's largest worker-owned cooperative--faces bankruptcy of its flagship appliance-maker division. Despite years and years of old-fashioned political activism by thousands of well-intentioned activists, the wrong-doings continue to happen. Clearly, old-fashioned political activism does not work.

If your reason for engaging in old-fashioned political activism is different from wanting to actually stop the wrong-doings, then perhaps such activism may "work" for you. It may give you assurance that in a world of so much suffering and oppression at least you are not siding with the oppressors, that you are "on the side of the angels." It may give you a sense that you are "doing something important" in our world ruled by the very rich, in which ordinary people have no real say in the key social/political decisions of society. It may give you an opportunity to wax eloquent by writing powerful articles condemning and exposing wrong-doing. It may give you a chance to be a respected, even powerful, leader in an organization. Yes, old-fashioned political activism can do all of these things for you. But if you want to stop the ruling elites from committing vile deeds, it doesn't work.

Why does old-fashioned political activism fail? The reason is not hard to see. It fails because it doesn't start by asking the right question: "How can we stop the wrong-doings, for good?" Instead, it asks very different questions, such as, "How can I express my anger at such-and-such a wrong-doing?" or "How can I educate others to know about such-and-such a wrong-doing?" To the extent that old-fashioned activism is at least implicitly based on a theory about how to stop the wrong-doings for good, that theory is wrong. What is the wrong theory?

The wrong theory seems to be the following:

When a sufficiently large number of people are sufficiently knowledgeable about all of the wrong-doings that cause me to be furious at the ruling elite, then and only then will the ruling elite stop committing those wrong-doings.

What's wrong with this theory? The theory is wrong on two counts.

First, there is no reason to believe that there will ever be a sufficiently large number of people sufficiently knowledgeable about all of the wrong-doings that cause you to be furious at the ruling elite. People are concerned about widely varying things. The evils of Zionism in Palestine may be the most important concern for you but considered by others to be something too far away to be of concern to them. The wrongful firing of a worker might be the most important concern for people somewhere and yet be something that you have not even heard about.

Second, even in the unlikely event that a huge number of people were fully informed about all of the wrong-doings that cause you to be furious at the ruling elite, this would not by itself stop the wrong-doings. The ruling elite does what it wants to do, no matter whether "The People" agree or not. There are lots of examples that prove this. One of them is that the American rulers continue to wage their unjust wars long after a majority of Americans oppose them.

For political activism to succeed, it needs to start by asking the right question-- How can we stop the wrong-doings for good?--and have a correct theory on which to base its answer. I propose the following theory.

First: The way to stop the wrong-doings for good is to remove the people who commit them from power, and to create a society in which anybody who wishes to commit such wrong-doings will not have the power to do so. This follows from the fact that there are people who, if they have the power to do so, will commit wrong-doings no matter how hard people try to persuade them not to.

Political activism, therefore, needs to confront the question of power; it needs to remove the power to do wrong from everybody, including from the people who currently are doing wrong. The accomplishment of this task is, of course, a revolution--a sweeping social and political and economic revolution. It is the removal from power of a class of wrong-doers. It is not "winning a verbal argument" or "demonstrating that lots of people oppose a wrong-doing" or "speaking truth to power." These things have their use, but it is a mistake--typical of old-fashioned activism--to equate these things with the ultimate aim of political activism, which is to remove wrong-doers from power, in other words to make a revolution.

Second: To make a revolution in the United States* requires building a huge revolutionary movement (hundreds of millions strong) that has the explicit goal of removing the ruling elite from power in order to make society be the way those hundreds of millions of people want it to be. Such a revolutionary movement can prevail in a contest of force against the ruling elite by winning over a sufficient number of members of the military forces to refuse to obey orders to attack the revolutionary movement and to use their weapons to defend it against those members of the police and military who might obey orders from the ruling elite to attack the revolutionary movement.

This only makes sense, of course, if two things are true: 1) hundreds of millions of Americans share a vision of the way they want society to be and 2) this vision is very different from how the ruling elite wants society to be. There is such a vision, although unfortunately most people hold it only implicitly today, that is to say they don't consciously know they hold this vision. It is the vision of an egalitarian society, one with no rich and no poor, with an economy based on sharing according to need among those who contribute according to ability, and with a genuine democracy based on voluntary federation of local communities in which the only laws people are obliged to follow are those made by local assemblies open to all people equally who support equality and mutual aid.** When this vision is presented to them explicitly, most Americans say this is what they want, and that they always have wanted it but never before had the words to express it so explicitly. The problem is that this vision is rarely presented explicitly to Americans, and most have never heard of it. Most Americans think the only alternative to our dictatorship of the rich (the devil we know) is a possibly worse devil we don't know: a dictatorship of a Communist Party or perhaps Islamic Fundamentalists or Nazi-style racists.

Building the revolutionary movement today entails doing two things: 1) introducing millions of Americans to the revolutionary egalitarian vision explicitly and 2) making millions of Americans aware of the fact that their revolutionary aspiration for such an egalitarian world makes them part of a majority of Americans, not (as the ruling class wants us to believe) a hopelessly small and therefore powerless minority. The more this is accomplished, the more Americans will have the confidence that revolution is possible, and hence the confidence to devote time and energy and make sacrifices to create organizations to continue the process of building the explicitly revolutionary movement with explicitly revolutionary goals. And this can one day succeed in making a revolution.

Note that the task of the revolutionary movement is not to make huge numbers of people knowledgeable about any particular wrong-doings of the ruling elite. Why not? Because most people already know that the ruling elite do bad things. They may not know about the bad things that you care most about, but so what? You don't know about the bad things they care most about either. People already know that we live in a dictatorship of the rich that prevents the world from being the way it ought to be. What they don't know is that they are part of a majority, not a small minority, in having revolutionary aspirations. They know revolution is necessary to make the world right; what they don't know is that revolution is not only necessary but possible.

Note also that building a revolutionary movement in no way means ignoring the struggles of people for particular goals that are good but not explicitly revolutionary. The revolutionary way to engage in such struggles is to help the people in the struggle make explicit their revolutionary egalitarian values that motivate the struggle in the first place. By doing this, the people in the struggle do two important things: 1) they inform the wider public that that they are joined by those in the struggle in sharing revolutionary aspirations and 2) they gain maximum public support for their struggle by helping the wider public--people who are not directly involved in the struggle and who don't know about or perhaps initially even care about the specific issue involved--see that the struggle is actually very much about what they care about because it is about revolutionary egalitarian values and aims.

One way the ruling elite make people feel all alone in having revolutionary aspirations and hence hopeless about the possibility of revolution is by persuading them that other people have very different and very bad aims. This is the purpose of the Big Lies the ruling class tells to whip up fear of all Americans against "terrorist/hate-filled/anti-semitic" Muslims and Arabs and fear of white Americans against "criminally violent black Americans" and anger of Americans with better paying jobs against "selfish lazy welfare cheats." Yes, the revolutionary movement needs to counter such lies about people, and this calls for educating people about things they are not personally familiar with. But the purpose of this educational work needs to be understood properly. The purpose is to help people see that they are not alone in having revolutionary aspirations, aspirations that most blacks and most Muslims and most Arabs and most people on welfare have too. This is a very different purpose from the purpose of your old-fashioned political activism, which is to persuade people who supposedly are content with the status quo to be as angry at it as you are.

What's needed is a new kind of political activism that is truly revolutionary. This is what is all about. Please visit there and consider becoming a revolutionary. And please remember that exposing the wrong-doings of the ruling elite while not building a revolutionary movement is like saying that a fish is rotten while continuing to eat it.


* I focus on the United States because that is where I live, but the problem is that virtually the entire planet is ruled today by oppressive anti-democratic elites of one stripe or another. Therefore, a revolution anywhere can only be truly secure when it spreads to becomes a global revolution. Otherwise the ruling elites of other nations will use their power to try to carry out counter-revolution wherever revolution takes place.

** For a fuller description of an egalitarian society, see Thinking about Revolution.



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