PREFACE:This blog is based on the transcript of a recent talk I gave at a meeting this week. I made some minor formatting edits, etc., but it more or less reflects what was said during my talk. Therefore, the structure may seem informal and it may make references to “my talk,” etc.
“Be the change you want to see in the world” is an age old maxim for social change, that goes back thousands of years, and continues to be a popular proposal today to those who wish to see a better society. In this talk I’m aiming to break down this concept, explore it’s political content, and explain what I believe are some of it’s limitations, and propose an alternative approach based on revolutionary socialism.
THE THREAT WE FACE
First, I want to explain some of the challenges that we face today, to emphasize why we urgently need to construct a political project to change society.
As this November’s elections approach, the Democrats and the Republicans are stuck in a game of “Good Cop/Bad Cop.” The candidates of the two parties may differ in demeanor and tone, but are virtually indistinguishable politically. Whoever wins, we know what’s coming: more attacks on unions; more cuts to public services like schools, and assistance for the poor; more wars; more attacks on women; more attacks on LGBT people; more police brutality in poor black neighborhoods; continued expansion of mass incarceration; and continued devastation to the natural environment, and so on.
Some statistics to illustrate the present situation:
- The Malcolm X Grassroots movement recently estimated that in the first six months of 2012, at least one black person was murdered by the police every 36 hours.
- According to the Guttmacher Institute, in the first half of 2012 there have been 95 new provisions related to reproductive health and rights passed by state governments, including 39 new restrictions to abortion access.
- Both Highland Park and Muskegon Heights in Michigan became the first school districts to completely hand control over their public school system to privately managed charter companies.
- The Democratic Mayor of Detroit Dave Bing recently announced a plan to fire 81% of the employees of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, and hand over significant portions of the department to private contractors.
- Meanwhile, two years after slashing and burning union wages and receiving a federal bailout, last February General Motors announced record-breaking profits of $7.6 billion dollars.
- Finally, recent reports from the European Union found that Summer sea ice in the arctic has dropped by 50% between 2004 and 2012, leading one researcher to comment that “Very soon we may…look at satellite images and see no sea ice coverage in the Arctic, just open water.”
We know what the Republicans think about all this.
We’ve likely all heard what Todd Akin, the Republican candidate for Senator in Minnesota, thinks: He recently said that pregnancy can’t result from “legitimate rape” because women’s bodies have ways of “shutting that whole thing down.”
We can figure out what multimillionaires Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan think. The federal budget plan proposed by Ryan, who called medicare a “ponzi scheme” and cites the free market fundamentalist Ayn Rand as his chief inspiration for entering politics, wants to cap taxes on the wealthy at 25% and cut all spending on everything except medicare, Social Security and—of course—defense spending, by 91%.
But on the other side of the aisle, we see a mirror image. Alongside his “hopeful” demeanor Barack Obama says that the Democrats don’t get enough credit for their willingness to cut spending on medicare and social security.
In response to Romney campaign ads attacking Obama on welfare reform, rather than defending welfare, a spokesperson for Obama’s campaign fired back at Romney for being soft on welfare recipients. The spokesperson charged that Romney “petitioned the federal government for waivers that would have let people stay on welfare for an indefinite period, ending welfare reform as we know it, and even created a program that handed out free cars to welfare recipients.”
When he has something to say about race relations in the United States, he’s generally channeling Reagan’s “welfare queen” rhetoric. Earlier this month in Chicago, Obama offered his solution to the Black community. “We need better role models,” he said, “we have to provide stronger role models than the gang-banger on the corner.”
In March of this year Obama stated proudly that under his administration “America is producing more oil today than at any time in the last eight years,” and that “As long as [he’s] president, [he’s] going to keep on encouraging oil development and infrastructure.”
So we can see that no matter who wins in November we know that the 1% will win and the 99% will lose, unless we organize to fight back and struggle for a better future.
Hence, I think that the urgency of the moment we’re demands sincerely examining and debating activist strategies and tactics.
WHAT DOES “BE THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE” MEAN?
This concept of “being the change you want to see in the world” is taken generally to mean that we have to reflect the kind of society we’re fighting for in our lifestyle, organizations, movements, etc. Another term used by many activists today to describe this concept is “prefigurative politics.”
Activist and author Andy Cornell defines prefigurative politics as “the principle that activists and social-change organizations should model in their present-day lives and work the new values, institutions and social relationships they advocate for on a broader scale, as part of their strategy for bringing about that change.”
There is a wide range of movements, tendencies and institutions that are variously classified under or advocate “prefigurative politics.”
For example, the anarchist Emma Goldman argued, “No revolution can ever succeed as a factor of liberation unless the means used to further it be identical in spirit and tendency with the purposes to be achieved.” Likewise the Industrial Workers of the World, or “Wobblies,” proclaimed that they were “forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.” Today, many claimed that the encampments in Occupy were an attempt to model the future society we wanted to see.
So, central to the idea of prefigurative politics is the idea that the means used by revolutionaries need to be in strict harmony with their ends.
There are plenty of good reasons that people are attracted to this approach: for one thing, it’s very intuitive. But more importantly, in my opinion, picturing and thinking about how you want the world to look can be a motivating and inspirational practice. I do it all the time. And attempting to model the future society can make people feel hopeful and encouraged that a better world really is possible in their lifetime.
However, it can also be misleading and restrictive. For one, we cannot start our struggle for a better society by simply counter-posing how the world ought to be with how the world is. Rather, we have to begin our struggle with an analysis of the present conditions, and examining what possibilities they offer for changing our society in the future. From there we can select the appropriate means, strategies and tactics for building our struggle to change society. In other words, to paraphrase the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, before we can justify our means we first have to justify our ends, first.
THE UTOPIAN SOCIALISTS
Among the first interventions into socialist movement made by the nineteenth century German revolutionaries Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were around the question of how we determine the ends of our revolutionary struggle.
In their day, most socialists occupied themselves with drafting blueprints of what they believed the future society should look like. People like Charles Fourier and Robert Owen believed that through their pamphlets, books and experimental communities, they would be able to convince enough people of their vision.
Marx and Engels actually had very little to say one way or the other on the utopian’s actual vision for a new society. Instead, their criticism emphasized the utopian’s analysis of society and strategy to change it. The utopian’s analysis for the most part was a moral criticism of society, and thus emphasized a moral vision of the future.
To the utopians, therefore, much like religious leaders or theologists, morality was viewed as something eternal and permanently fixed within universe, independent of time and space. Moral truths were “self-evident.” Correct morals for guiding humanity and society, therefore, only needed to be correctly understood by an enlightened intellectual and then put into practice. As Engels explained, according to the utopians:
If pure reason and justice have not, hitherto, ruled the world, this has been the case only because men have not rightly understood them. What was wanted was the individual man of genius…He might just as well have been born 500 years earlier, and might then have spared humanity 500 years of…suffering.
By examining society in this way the utopians were able to thoroughly illustrate the evils of capitalist society. However, guided only by a moral criticism of the present, the utopians were unable to explain neither capitalism’s origins nor it’s demise.
Without money or political power to put their vision of the future into practice the utopians became isolated. They quickly went to the working class for help – but not because they saw the workers as having any particularly revolutionary potential. Rather, the utopians believed, because they were the most oppressed the workers would be the most attentive to the socialist vision.
For this reason, the American revolutionary socialist Hal Draper labeled the utopian socialists as part of the camp that advocates “socialism-from-above.” The utopians knew the truth and all the working class needed to do was listen and put the truth into practice.
Marxism, on the other hand, according to Draper, argues that the working class must be the leaders of their own liberation. As Marx himself wrote in a letter to a colleague:
“We do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.”
THE PRACTICAL LIMITS OF PREFIGURATIVE POLITICS
Even though the debate between Marx’s and the utopians took place well over a century and a half ago, we can still learn valuable lessons from them to guide our work today.
Alternative institutions or utopian experiments that aim to “prefigure” and anticipate what the future socialist society will look like are limited in their potential to win a new society. These projects exist as seeds of socialism planted in hostile capitalist soil, which either smothers the seeds before they can sprout, or poisons the fruit they bring to bear.
For example, institutions such as workers cooperatives are unable to mount a strong enough challenge to the capitalists. As the twentieth century German socialist Rosa Luxemburg stated, workers forming a cooperative are under pressure from competition in the market and must rule over “themselves with the utmost absolutism” forcing them to either “become pure capitalist enterprises,” or dissolve if they hold on to their principles.
The Mondragon cooperative federation in Spain is exemplary. Because of it’s wild success, in the mid-1990s Mondragon began to come into competition with multinational corporations. In order to survive the competition the cooperative federation began to change its policies. It started opening factories in low wage countries like Egypt, Morocco and Mexico. None of the employees in these factories are cooperative members and have no say in the operation of their workplaces. Furthermore, cooperatives could now apply to hire up to 40% non-member employees in order to remain competitive. At the time these changes led one cooperative member to lament that Mondragon could not “flourish as a cooperative island in a capitalist world.”
Like the fate of the utopians, movements today that attempt to “prefigure” the future society find it difficult to grow or make progress. By trying to emulate the future instead of dealing with the present these organizations can tend to become “encapsulated” as they replace perfecting their own internal relations for engaging with people beyond their own circle.
For instance, perfecting decision-making processes in movements can often become a substitute for building a movement for real democracy outside. This was the case at many Occupy general assemblies where needlessly complex processes made meetings last as long as 3 – 6 hours a day pushing away literally hundreds of people. Members at meetings sometimes started to resemble “Dennis the Constitutional Peasant” from Monty Python’s Holy Grail.
To provide another example, combating racism can come to be seen as primarily a matter of individual attitude (sometimes resembling many liberal and even conservative attitudes about racism): “checking privilege,” “call out culture,” and so on, can begin to replace the work of building a mass movement that is strong enough to overthrow the racist, oppressive social structure outside the movement.
I saw a good example of this a couple months ago: I visited a building that Occupy Chicago was using during the NATO protests last May. Someone had hung a poster on a door with the heading “How to Fight Racism.” The poster had a list of things people can do to fight racism, such as not using racist language, opening up space for people of color to participate at meetings, etc. Of course, these are all crucial things that people need to do if we’re going to build a successful, multi-racial movement against racism, exploitation and oppression. But things like mass incarceration, police brutality, or discrimination in housing, education or employment, were all noticeably absent from the list!
Inevitably, movements that begin to replace dealing with the world of the present with anticipating the world of the future become isolated, stagnate, shrink, and collapse.
Ultimately, any project (prefigurative or not) that lasts and grows large enough to become a nuisance to the capitalists (like Occupy, for example) has to deal with the power of the state and will be crushed unless the movement is large and organized well enough to defend itself.
THE REVOLUTIONARY ALTERNATIVE: SELF-EMANCIPATION FROM BELOW
Marx and Engels’ vision of the future society began not from a moral conception of a “good society” juxtaposed to the present “bad society” but rather from a study of the present and what potential it offers us for making change. This is why it is sometimes said that socialism was not an idea “invented” out of the human brain but rather something that was “discovered” within the real, material world.
Marx wasn’t fascinated with capitalism because of its particular horrors like the utopians were. Rather his interest in capitalism was in the unique potential that it held. In previous societies, socialism would have simply equalized poverty, starvation and misery, and society would have quickly retreated back to a class society as people competed among themselves over scarce resources.
But under capitalism something is different. Individual capitalists are forced to constantly discover new ways of producing things more quickly and cheaply in order to reduce labor costs, maximize their profits, and outdo each other in competition in the market, lest their more aggressive counterparts swallow them up.
On the one hand, this creates unprecedented chaos, confusion, suffering, ecological destruction, and misery. Whole new concepts had to be developed to describe and make sense of this new world. “Unemployment” (the idea that somebody had no work to do), for example, was literally unthinkable in earlier human societies.
On the other hand, the increase in overall productivity of society and creates, alongside unspeakable poverty, unimaginable wealth. Under capitalism, enough is produced to feed, house, educate, clothe, and care for everyone in human society.
In other words, under capitalism, virtually all poverty is artificial. Poverty and hunger in previous societies was typically the resulted from natural disasters like a flood or a drought. But today, these things are the result of a society that is organized strictly for the purposes of enriching the few at the expense of the many.
So today, for example, while there are over 1 billion people across the world living in “food insecurity”—a euphemism for starvation—40% of this year’s corn crop is to be turned into biofuels, and food prices are skyrocketing due to unchecked financial speculation (banks are buying up food and refusing to sell it in order to drive prices up).
However, we can take advantage of this productivity and these resources and use them to meet everyone’s needs, but doing that requires overthrowing the power of the ruling 1% and taking control of the tools of production to meet our own needs. That is what socialism is.
That new society can’t simply be “prefigured” in the present (since you can’t “prefigure” an end to poverty or homelessness, for instance). That type of society can only be realized by placing the vast majority of society, the working class, in control of society’s resources and productive tools.
This movement has to be led by the working class, not only because we’re the largest class in society but also because we have a material interest in taking the fight all the way. The working class is also in the strategic position to cut off the source of the 1%’s power by shutting down the factories, offices and workplaces that enrich the 1%.
HOW IDEAS CHANGE
However, if you go out and say to the average person on the street: “Hey, I’m a worker, you’re a worker, let’s go out and strike and take over the means of production,” that person will look at you like you’re a lunatic.
Most people aren’t prepared for that kind of struggle, yet. Most people in the working class in the United States don’t even think of themselves as workers. That’s because the capitalists control most of the means of education, media, cultural production and so on, and because of hat, their ideas tend to prevail: capitalism is inevitable; it’s human nature; there is no alternative; we’re too powerless; gays and straights, blacks and whites, men and women, all have competing interests; the working class can’t unite, etc.
However, the capitalists sew the seeds of their own overthrow. Since they rely on the exploitation and oppression of the working-class and oppressed people they create conditions for ongoing resistance and struggle. While there are periods of relative social stability, as long as the capitalists continue to exploit and oppress, people will want to organize to fight back—trade unions, community organizations, and other formations. Through these struggles—no matter if they’re for better wages, against police brutality, or to stop sexual assault—people can start to sort through the various contradictory ideas and develop a revolutionary worldview.
But while struggle is inevitable, revolution is not.
Revolutionaries cannot be content to sit on their hands waiting for the revolution to come knocking. There are various forces between the ruling class and the oppressed competing for political influence: Democrats, Republicans (and even fascists, like in Greece, for example). Therefore, the people who become revolutionary first need to organize together and agitate within the struggles that exist in the present to win people over to a revolutionary program and build the foundations for a revolutionary movement that can radically change society. That is, they need to build a revolutionary party.
MEANS AND ENDS
The revolutionary party, therefore, does not exist as “the embryo” of the future society or future state, but rather, it exists as a tool for organizing revolutionaries to study and deal with the world of the present.
But does this mean that a revolutionary organization can be undemocratic or deceptive? Or do whatever it wants as long as it’s in the name of the revolution or the working class?
Of course not.
Only the working class can win a socialist society. Nobody can do it for them. As the American revolutionary socialist Eugene Debs said: “[I] would not lead the workers out [of bondage] if I could; for if you could be led out, you could be led back again.”
Therefore, a premium has to be put on those things that actually unite the working class, raise the people’s political consciousness, their self-confidence and their leadership participation in struggle.
So, for example, this means that socialists not only need to be absolutely vigilant in arguing against racist or bigoted behavior in the movements they work in; socialists also need to elevate struggles against racism, sexism, and all forms of oppression to the center of all the movements they’re active in, since it’s only by building that sort of broad movement that we can build the solidarity necessary for overthrowing the power of the capitalists and winning a new society.
Likewise, socialists need to be disciplined in arguing against undemocratic practices in movements since these harm people’s ability to lead in the struggle themselves, debate their strategies and tactics, and learn lessons from their own struggle and therefore grow politically.
For one final example, socialists should generally argue against tactics like smashing coffee shop windows at protests or needlessly, since it’s needlessly provokes state repression and therefore deter people’s political radicalization.
But these aren’t arguments from humanitarian or moral sentimentality, e.g. we do these things because they’re “the right thing to do.” Rather, they’re based on the actual conditions we face in the real world, and political necessities winning the fight against oppression, exploitation, and planetary destruction.
On the other hand, if we were in Greece, for example, where the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party (who recently won over a dozen seats in Greece’s parliament with massive electoral support from the Greek police) has been organizing street-level attacks against immigrant communities, it would be criminally irresponsible to reject the use of physical force in defending our immigrant brothers and sisters, or in stopping the threat of rising neo-Nazi influence.
The means we use in struggle, therefore, are not selected based on self-evident truths or eternal morality, but rather, on the concrete conditions of the struggle we face here-and-now.
At a certain stage in every revolutionary struggle the movement will have to face the dilemma of political power, that is, how to enforce the aims and objectives of the working class upon the capitalists. That is, how do we actually defeat the capitalists, their state and their counter-revolution, which will seek to ruthlessly crush any and all opposition. We’ve already seen the ruthlessness they’ve had with the Occupy movement, which, relatively speaking, has been very minor. It is these moments in a revolutionary crisis where there is no room for needlessly restricting the tools we use against the oppressor, and in fact, must use whatever means we have at our disposal. As the anarchist-turned-revolutionary socialist Victor Serge said, in these moments “victory means life; defeat means death.”
Indeed, this was no exaggeration. It was the failure of revolutionaries to deal with the capitalist counter offensive in places like Italy, Germany, Spain and Chile that allowed for Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, and Augusto Pinochet to rise to power (and we are beginning to see the germ of this in Greece right now).
It becomes necessary, therefore, at a certain point, for the revolutionary movement to take hold of political power and use that power to enforce their revolutionary aims over those of the capitalist state and the counter-revolution.
However, the state as it exists today was designed by and for the capitalists to administer a their own society. Therefore the present state cannot simply be taken hold of and used for the purposes of the working class to administer a socialist society. We have to dismantle the old state, and replace it with institutions of our own political power, deeply integrated in the site of workers power, i.e. the workplace.
These sorts of institutions have existed at different moments throughout history and emerge during intense moments of revolutionary fervor, and the old organizations of workers power (trade unions, for instance) no longer suffice to carry the struggle forward. They’ve been called different things: the Commune in Paris, soviets in the Russian Revolution, workers’ councils during the German Revolution of 1918, the factory councils in France in May 1968, shoras during the Iranian Revolution, or cordones in Chile, etc.
These institutions serve a dual function, however. They are not only organs of workers’ struggle, but also exist as the “embryo” of the future workers state, to use Lenin’s description. Through these organizations the working class can escalate the level of struggle, but also gain the confidence and develop the political maturity to democratically rule the future socialist society. Finally, by bringing the whole working class together and posing the question of power, these “workers’ councils” can coordinate workers’ self-defense that can fight and eventually defeat the counter-revolution.
“SURVIVAL” PROGRAMS AND “SERVICE” ORGANIZATIONS
Does this mean that revolutionaries should only ever involve themselves in building mass movements?
I don’t think so. While mass movements are the foundation and the determining factor in building a movement for revolutionary change, I think there is room to be flexible. Plenty of important movements in the past (and the present) have been involved in “service” style organizations. Consider the Black Panther Party’s programs for “survival pending revolution.” Or today, members of the radical left SYRIZA party in Greece (which is likely soon to become the dominant political party in parliament) are “organizing neighborhood assemblies, maintaining ‘solidarity kitchens’ and bazaars, [and] working in medical social centers.” The German Communist Party during the revolutionary period of 1918 – 1921 organized their own schools and cultural organizations. The Communist Party in the U.S. formed councils of unemployed workers during the Great Depression (which is an experience worth thinking about, whatever the CP’s problems with Stalinism). Civil rights activists organized Freedom Schools, and so on.
Sometimes people classify these kinds of institutions as “prefigurative.” For instance, the veteran activist George Lakey frequently cites the Black Panther’s free breakfast program as a case study in prefigurative politics throughout his work.
But I think this is inaccurate.
Let’s consider the Black Panther Party. The BPP had over 40 different service organizations for “survival pending revolution,” with the free breakfast program being the most popular. At its peak, in Oakland, the Panthers were serving over 10,000 children free breakfast every day.
There were probably dozens of different takes within the Panthers over exactly what these survival programs were, and whether or not they were modeled off the kind of society we want to win. But in my opinion, the free breakfast program are more successful seen as a tool building their party, and raising political consciousness, not as institutions anticipating the future.
Huey Newton himself expressed this view of the survival programs, saying,
“These programs satisfy the deep needs of the community but they are not solutions to our problems. That is why we call them survival programs, meaning survival pending revolution. We say that the survival program of the Black Panther Party is like the survival kit of a sailor stranded on a raft. It helps him to sustain himself until he can get completely out of that situation…When consciousness and understanding is raised to a high level then the community will seize the time and deliver themselves from the boot of their oppressors.”
Likewise, David Hilliard, another leader of the Black Panther Party said that:
“The [free breakfast program] serves a double purpose, providing sustenance but also function as an organizing tool: people enter the office when they come by, take some leaflets, sit in on an elementary [political education] class, talk to cadre, and exchange ideas.”
So for Newton and Hilliard, these survival programs were not intended to reflect the future society, but rather, to simply to provide a means for serving the community, and more importantly (since Panthers were not a charity) for building a mass movement that could eliminate the need for survival organizations altogether.
It’s important to keep in mind, I think, that while the Panthers fed 10,000 children a day in Oakland, the main thrust of the BPP’s work was on building a mass revolutionary party. While they were feeding kids, they were also printing a revolutionary newspaper that had a circulation of over 250,000+ every week across the country, and organizing dozens of local campaigns from fight against substandard housing in the Black communities, to combating police brutality, and running candidates in local elections.
So, while I believe that there’s room for flexibility, the question comes down to this: what kind of movement do we need to build in order to win a new society, and what kinds of tools, strategies and tactics does that struggle need in order to win?
While we may wonder and fantasize about a better world, and be motivated by visions of what our future society can look like, we cannot let our imagination cannot become a substitute for dealing concretely with the present.
Rather, we have to begin our work based on a study of the present and organize ourselves based around how the world is rather than around how the world is ought to be.