Be revolutionary; Start making sense

“Revolution does not mean torrents of blood, the taking of the Winter Palace, and so on. Revolution means a radical transformation of society’s institutions. In this sense, I certainly am a revolutionary.”
– Cornelius Castoriadis

When I was sixteen I tried organizing a strike. I didn’t know it was a strike. We were complaining about our low pay and short schedule and I asked, “Why don’t we just not show up to work until they change?” It just made sense to me.

Years later I would look back on this as my first attempt at organizing. Soon after I became involved with labor activism and I started to have lots of conversations with folks regarding work, bosses and the economy. During these discussions I wanted to introduce folks to the idea that our problem isn’t just with the conditions of work, but that whole dynamic of work and our economy is fundamentally flawed. It’s not just bad apples–it’s the whole orchard! Our economy totally oriented at squeezing employees dry.

I was astonished by the responses I would end up getting out of the conversation, and often people beat me to the punch. I would start off with a question like, “Well, why do you work?” and it would end up they would say things like “You know, it seems like it would make sense if something was set up where all the people who work for a company own an equal part of it, like stock or something”–no joke.

A friend who organized truckers in the Chicago area told me a story once about a republican co-worker who was vehemently anti-union, who he sat down with once to talk about work and said in the course of their conversation “you know, I don’t see one reason why us truckers can’t own and operate the whole company. It’s not like the bosses know how to do this.”

I say all this to say that, it seems to me, that when faced with the facts and when the cards are all laid out, it’s not far fetched to say that we need fundamental change in the world we live in. That there is a pattern that exists and the social problems that grind us down every day, whether it be at work, in school, in our neighborhoods or homes come from things that are written into our society.

A fundamental change in society is a revolution. Just like when some new widget is created that changes the way we look at widgets an advertisement might call it “revolutionary change in widget technology!” The same for that widget ad applies to changes in our social, political, economic and cultural lives.

Being revolutionary doesn’t mean that we’re out for some sort of vengeance against the people who made this a harsh world to live in, or that we start fashioning makeshift weapons in our basements. Revolution is a forward looking movement toward a new and better world. When we look back on events we do it to inform our way forward, not to see who screwed us and how we can get ’em back. We’re out to build institutions that will promote humane values in the world, and to get rid of social features that work against them. It means that we think carefully about how change is made in the world and then we do the work to realize our vision. Revolution is transformation.

Within two to three blocks from my apartment there are probably about ten homeless wandering next to an abandoned building that could be fixed up to give these folks a place to stay. Just a few miles away is a shut down mental health hospital that could help the homeless folks who are sick. Meanwhile, trillions are spent on bombs and other technology that serves no other purpose than to blow things up half a world away, or on prisons that are used to lock up millions of nonviolent drug offenders. Just a fraction of that money used to destroy or incarcerate could go to homes for the homeless, jobs for the jobless, food to the hungry or education to the uneducated.

Most people would see that and say “Well that makes sense, things have to be this way.” Most folks believe that our world should be a place where the sick get taken care of and where the weak are defended. Most people would like a world where everyone gets everything that they need to lead a fulfilling life. That world is fundamentally different than ours. The shift from a world that doesn’t make sense to a world that makes sense is a revolutionary change from the world we have. If you want that world, you’re a revolutionary! Being a revolutionary makes sense in a world that makes little sense.

Through all the empires and wars and depressions the worlds gotten all kinds of crazy and we gotta fix it up!

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2 Responses to Be revolutionary; Start making sense

  1. hegemonik says:

    I have to say that I really, really dislike that Castoriadis quote. I think it’s at odds with some of what you’re trying to say elsewhere.

    I dislike the Castoriadis quote, mainly because it seems to me that he’s of the school that you can have your cake and eat it, too. That’s the kind of garbage that Gitlin peddles here in the U.S. It’s the ultimate form of armchair activism: insisting on change only to the extent that you get to keep your 401(k) plan, your lily white suburban living, and get to talk about the good ol’ days.

    Revolution, in my mind, has two aspects:
    1) The radical break from one arrangement of society to another, through a direct struggle between antagonistic forces of oppressed and oppressor/exploited and exploiter. In other words, struggle.
    2) The ongoing process of dealing with whatever is left over after that confrontation. In other words, progress.

    The whole point is that the first point makes the second point possible (though by no means a certainty). We’re revolutionaries. If so, why bash the very actions that make revolution possible? Why should we spill tears for the Czar? Did he shed one tear for all the blood he unleashed? Should we now spill tears for the recently sacked Gyanendra of Nepal, whose sacking now makes it possible for millions of lower-caste peasants to potentially redress longstanding grievances? Did he (or any of his ancestors) shed one tear for all they did to keep the lower-castes miserable?

  2. From what I’ve read of Castoriadis, I don’t think that’s what he had in mind, thankfully. And the quote was from a live interview, so it certainly wasn’t the most meditated-over choice of words. And Gitlin’s certainly in a league of his own… lol

    I think while it’s true that as you say Aaron that it’s not about revenge, and it’s crucial to build alternative structures, there’ll still be folks in power that will simply refuse to give it up; that’s where #1 in Daniel’s comment comes in.

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