Clearing the Decks

Chapter Three. Clearing the Deck: What Makes a Revolution?

Though the word “revolution” can still conjure up fear, it has been debased by marketers and enlarged to meaninglessness by visionaries of change in just about every sphere of human experience. We have revolutionary new makeups and a revolution in management theory, revolutions in human consciousness and revolutionary design principles for the next American suburb. The revolutions never stop coming, and they never amount to most of what they’re celebrated for. And however profound the change – in culture or consciousness, in sexual relations or industrial relations, in financial markets or philanthropic aims – the revolution du jour never alters the fundamental dynamics of our political system, whose dependence on arms and high finance deepens by the decade.

The revolution we need today is a political revolution. It will certainly depend on a change in consciousness, but it will never be enough to “change your head”. Sorry Beatles. And much of the “consciousness” that the Next American Revolution will draw upon is already well in place. We are, most of us, small-d democrats, as Americans (ordinary folk, that is) have been since the Revolution of 1776. Despite the republican system erected by elites, and their very real fears of democracy, ordinary folks joined the Revolution on behalf of fundamentally democratic sentiments, and in wave after wave of democratic frustration with elite rule they cut away at the trammels put in the way of popular rule, especially at the state level. The first state constitutions often went considerably further than elites had intended in extending the suffrage and installing democratic institutions. A wave of democratic fury at Federalist arrogance at the beginning of the nineteenth century produced a wave of constitutional conventions that extended the suffrage yet more and wiped out many instruments of elite rule. And the Jacksonian moment in the 1830’s produced still more mobilization on behalf of popular rule. As Grace Boggs insists, this democratic impulse is now world-wide. If ever ordinary people passively accepted elite rule, that day is long past.

The task of this chapter is to clear the decks of some of the baggage and misunderstanding that the notion of revolution carries with it. Above all, we will insist that the change that we need, the political transformation that will make it possible at last to seriously confront the crises of our time, requires a largely peaceful transfer of power to an insurgent majority committed to remaking the American state and system of government.

Revolution is Not About Violence, OR Non-violence. . .

The “classical” revolutions – the American, French, Russian, Mexican, Chinese – were all characterized by prolonged violence. In the 1960’s and 70’s, the example of the Cuban Revolution inspired “armed struggle” throughout Latin America, though few of these efforts rose to the level of revolutions with real hope of success. Meanwhile, in Asia and Africa anti-colonial struggles often took violent form, sometimes under the leadership of communist parties allied with Moscow or Beijing. “Revolution” appeared synonymous with violence and, for U.S. policy makers, with communist efforts to subvert legitimate order. (Never mind that many participants were anything but communists, and existing governments were scarcely legitimate in the eyes of sizable numbers of their citizens.)

Then came a series of non-violent, but equally revolutionary repudiations of established systems of government, first in Eastern Europe, then in the Soviet Union and, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, in Venezuela and Bolivia and Ecuador. The “Velvet Revolutions” of Eastern Europe overturned supposedly totalitarian governments with scarcely a shot fired. The movements that shook the upper tier of South American countries were less far-reaching in their results, though serious constitutional change was a result, but equally non-violent. Limited violence occurred as the Soviet Union was challenged, then broke apart and reconstituted itself in independent countries, but virtually all of it came from the side of the state.

In fact, violence takes two sides. Often enough what has precipitated (or amplified) revolutionary violence has been the violence of the state. What enabled the velvet revolutions to succeed non-violently was the refusal of state elites to defend their positions violently. In Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, surges of popular protest succeeded in overturning established states and forcing the transformation of the system. In Latin America (similar to Poland at the beginning of the collapse of communism in Europe), an electoral upsurge of popular forces overturned oligarchic rule and made possible constitutional reform with strong democratic provisions.

The velvet revolutions were so surprising because elites simply conceded in the face of popular protest and, sometimes, electoral defeats. In 1989 Eastern European communist elites, aware of their own illegitimacy in the eyes of most of their countrymen, refused to imitate the Chinese Communists (who had violently suppressed protesters at Tienanmen Square earlier that year). Mikhail Gorbachev had led the way by refusing to deploy Soviet troops to back Eastern European regimes. Communist leaders negotiated a rapid transition in most of the region. In Venezuela and Bolivia and Ecuador, entrenched elites were overturned in electoral defeats and chose (by and large) to play the democratic game, looking for ways to block reform through the courts and the ballot box.
(They’re not looking anymore, having largely coopted or replaced the revolutionary regimes that replaced them, or, in the case of Venezuela, been submerged in generalized social breakdown.)

Democratic revolutions are possible where authorities are committed to respecting the results of elections. Whether violence is part of the process depends on choices made by a whole range of actors, from military and police commanders, to anti-revolutionary factions, to insurgents, to elites themselves. There are elite actors in this country who are willing to court “Black Shirt” style violence against their democratic (and even their Democratic) opponents and to stir up racial resentments and mobilize anti-government sentiment against reformers. There are at least a few revolutionaries out there who embrace violence as a protest response to the evils of the present dis-order. But the likelihood of a violent revolution in the U.S. context is vanishingly small.

We can’t make decisions for our opponents, but it is important to think through the question of tactics. Violence and non-violence are tactics, each appropriate to particular circumstances. But they aren’t just choices for advocates of change, as we have just seen. States regularly employ violence, as do their supporters. And their choices, not those of proponents of change, are often crucial to whether violence or non-violence will prevail. So the question of tactics is always relative to the situation, and the situation is always defined by multiple actors, but by states especially. Will the state ruthlessly suppress dissent? Does it have the capacity to enforce its will? Will it stand firm in the face of prolonged counter-violence? Each question reverberates (or should do so) in the calculus of advocates for change. Ruthless suppression of dissent can provoke widespread revulsion and actually strengthen the armed opposition, as it did in the Vietnam of the 1950’s and early 60’s under the unpopular Diem brothers, or in El Salvador in the late 1970’s. But a state with serious capacity to smash its opponents can make armed insurgency foolish at best, tragic when it implicates the innocent in the train of violence and counter-violence it unleashes. Even a relatively weak state with solid support among elites and within itself can manage prolonged insurgency in the periphery for years.

The choice of violence or non-violence, of course, also has moral implications, but it will do us little good to enter into that controversy here. The situation we face is one in which there could be little question of armed struggle, however angry we might be. The American state is a fundamentally liberal one. It is unlikely, therefore, to employ the sort of indiscriminate repression that could drive large numbers of citizens into rebellion, however ominous the repressive powers of the state have become in the last decade. The American state might bow before a prolonged insurgency, given the divisions any liberal state suffers. But no such insurgency could face down the enormous security apparatus of the contemporary American state long enough to represent a serious alternative.

“Armed struggle” is scarcely an option for revolutionaries here and now. Nor is it a necessary option, given the avenues for action we have before us. That doesn’t rule out other sorts of disruption, from symbolic vandalism to politically-motivated hacking. But it sets important parameters for action and illustrates one set of considerations that confront anyone inclined to advocate destructive direct action. What will the consequences look like, not just for me, but for the movement? Will my act of vandalism unleash significant repression on others? Will creative hacking make the rest of us even more subject to Internet surveillance? Other sets of considerations turn on public response to acts of “violence”. These are not trivial. The media routinely magnify acts of violence while ignoring the message of the mass of non-violent protesters. And public opinion is important to building a movement, though the impact of scattered acts of symbolic vandalism on public sentiment is usually exaggerated.

The experience of popular opposition to the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile illustrates the dilemmas movements face. Protests started after the economic collapse of 1982 – one of the first instances of neo-liberal catastrophe brought on by the disastrous policies of Milton Friedman’s Chilean students, the so-called Chicago Boys. The first large-scale public protest was led by the illegal Chilean mine workers union, but it was joined by thousands of people from the shantytowns of Santiago. Monthly protests ensued, shutting down the city and emboldening the outlawed opposition parties to reform and join the movement. The Pinochet government responded with violence, driving demonstrators off the streets and invading the shantytowns in search of leaders. As government violence escalated, middle class supporters of the protests stayed home, and the shantytowns continuing the movement were reduced to the most radical, mainly those organized by the clandestine Communist Party of Chile.

As violence overtook the shantytowns and protest leadership was jailed, the opposition parties regrouped, excluding the Communists and the shantytown leadership, and began to negotiate with the government. Pinochet responded with a divide-and-conquer strategy, but he was hemmed in by his own Constitution, which called for a plebiscite on his rule in 1989. If he lost, a severely hedged democracy would be restored. The middle-of-the-road opposition responded with a campaign for the “No” on continued rule by the general. In the end, they succeeded, and Pinochet was forced to accept the results. But the people at the forefront of the original movement against him, those who had borne the brunt of the repression, were shut out of the process. And the “democracy” that was restored only recently began to overturn the constraints imposed by Pinochet and the military.

The Chilean experience illustrates the important point that movements are vulnerable to the different “thresholds” that supporters have. Once protest exploded on the streets, people who had been afraid to gather on a street corner were emboldened to defy the police by the thousands. Protests gained a momentum: the more people turned out, the more opponents of the regime reached their threshold of comfort with open protest. Repression reversed this process but failed to suppress opposition altogether. Instead it divided it, as those with lower thresholds for violence abandoned the streets and awaited moves by a “moderate” leadership to reignite protests and forge a strategy that the government wouldn’t repress. Meanwhile, those with a higher threshold for violence – and those caught in the middle – carried on but bore increasing repression, until their leadership was decimated. The refusal of the “moderates” to deal with them might have broken the opposition movement altogether if it weren’t for the fortuitous circumstances of Pinochet’s plebiscite and his ultimate (if reluctant) commitment to the process.

Violence on any scale and from any source thus has the potential to critically weaken a movement, handing leadership to an elite willing to negotiate away significant elements of popular demands. Extreme violence on the government’s part, even that responding to insurgent violence, can have the opposite effect, of course, radicalizing the opposition and driving young people in particular into arms. But the more likely scenarios facing democratic insurgency in the United States is one in which police, military, or paramilitary thugs respond to street protest with relatively targeted violence. And under such a scenario, there are plenty of “moderate” elements willing to seize the initiative from “violent” radicals. It’s predictable that such a development would deliver a great deal less than the revolution we need.

Non-violent protest faces much the same dilemma. While it may clearly generate sympathy when goons assault protesters who refuse to resist, as the Civil Rights movement illustrates, official violence generates much the same dynamic we already saw in the Chilean case. On the one hand, it prompts counter-violence from more radical elements of the opposition. On the other, it drains active participants from the movement as more timid supporters chose to stay home. And it encourages “moderation” on the part of leaders anxious to end the violence. Even Gandhi succumbed to this temptation after the famous Salt Strike, delaying a final reckoning until the British colonial authority was ready to concede power at the end of World War II.

Violent opposition has another liability. It encourages clandestinity. Insulated “cells” of revolutionaries are the preferred model wherever revolutionaries have something to hide. Violent tactics in any setting are something to hide. But clandestinity and the cell structure that goes with it encourage hierarchy and arbitrary decision-making. Every resistance movement, every armed revolutionary movement has committed atrocities against its own members, accused of subversion, and members of its own society, accused of collaboration with the enemy. Whether the deciding body is called a “People’s Tribunal,” whether the setting is Polish or French resistance to the Nazis or FMLN armed struggle against El Salvador’s military, the results are frequently tragic (like the execution of Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton by his comrades in the ERP faction of the FMLN) and completely at odds with democratic principles.

Nonviolence has been the standard answer of organizers around the world, and a case can be made that nonviolence has succeeded time and again where violence would have failed or worse. But if nonviolence is to be an effective tactic, it has to have coercive power. Gandhi knew this, though he refused to acknowledge it. Martin Luther King preferred to pass it over. But both men designed actions with the aim of forcing authorities to react, thrusting the decision and the spotlight on defenders of the status quo. Both men chose at one time or another to fill the jails as a way of burdening the system and forcing a reckoning. Both men knew that only massive protest could move the authorities and the public to take action. Symbolic protest has its uses, as in the Berrigans’ long campaign to throw attention on the threat of the United States’ nuclear arsenal. Long spells in prison were teaching opportunities for Philip Berrigan, who used them to train the next generation of protesters. But symbolic protest doesn’t change policy or build a movement. A few dozen or a few hundred people putting themselves voluntarily in the hands of D.C. police at a protest scarcely makes the papers, let alone influence the course of the latest war. Nonviolence is a tactic, and tactics are or are not suited to the goals and the circumstances. Each needs to be carefully considered in deciding how to proceed, just as with violence.

Is Democracy In the Streets?

The debate over violence or nonviolence is characteristic of approaches to change that focus on direct action. But what if marches and occupations and confrontations with the authorities are only a small part of what needs to be done? The fact is that street protest has proven extraordinarily feeble in confrontations with the American ruling class. “Democracy is in the streets” was the slogan associated with student protest against the war in Vietnam. It expressed widespread disillusionment with the electoral system and a conviction that “the people” could force change through demonstrations and direct action. And there is no doubt that impressive demonstrations during the Civil Rights Movement and later in the struggle against the war helped turn public opinion against both Jim Crow and the war. But the real struggles were in the halls of Congress and the White House, where popular outrage at the behavior of white Southerners, coupled with new electoral clout for Northern African Americans, forced a rethinking of decades of accommodation with segregation and where growing popular discomfort with a war that seemed to drag on and on without hope of termination nudged one president out of office and forced his replacement to claim to pursue peace.

The violence associated with the anti-war demonstrations of the late 1960’s had another, more far-reaching effect. As sociologists John McCarthy and Clark McPhail have documented, President Nixon’s discomfort with the public spectacle of police violently breaking up peaceable demonstrations led to a wholesale rethinking of how elites handled “democracy in the streets.” Out of that rethinking came a new police doctrine: rather than “protecting private property” from the rampages of demonstrators, the police were there to “protect demonstrators’ First Amendment rights.” Rather than attempting to make demonstrations illegal and thus infrequent and subject to repression, police forces were asked to work with protest leaders to schedule demonstrations and channel them along mutually acceptable parade routes. Protest leaders, eager for a better public image and practiced in promoting non-violent tactics, embraced the new regime. The result was the pacifying of demonstration, so much so that by the 1980’s a form of citizen activism that had been reviled by liberals and conservatives in the 1950’s became commonplace for everyone on the political spectrum. Demonstrations also became incredibly humdrum affairs, relieved by the spirit of camaraderie among the marchers, the pageantry of giant puppets and the outlandish costuming of some participants, but rarely challenging the status quo. Safely scheduled for a Saturday or Sunday, mammoth demonstrations could occupy much of official Washington with scarcely a Congressional aide or K-street lobbyist aware of what was going on, and media attention was almost as scant.

The story doesn’t end there, of course. The “Battle of Seattle” in 1999 remade the demonstration before the eyes of a national audience. With skills and tactics honed in the Redwood Summer showdowns over logging in the Pacific Northwest, demonstrators once again took up the disruptive tactics of the early Civil Rights Movement, blocking the access of delegates to the World Trade Organization meeting place and sitting down chained together to slow police efforts to clear the streets. The police, too, displayed a new approach. Eager for control during the demonstrations, which brought together some of the nation’s largest unions with Greenpeace and a rich assortment of anti-WTO activists, the Seattle police enlisted the help of police departments from outlying areas of the state, many of them trained in SWAT tactics and some of them schooled in quelling “civil violence” by the consulting arm of the notorious Miami Police Force. The result was a police riot of epic proportions. At one point, the police, having established a “security perimeter” within which any demonstrator was fair game, marched over the line lobbing tear gas canisters into the chic Capitol Hill coffee house district. Outraged patrons hurled them back.

But the new era of police in Darth Vadar outfits brandishing shields and tazers was short-lived, and largely reserved for the anti-corporate globalization demonstrators who turned up for World Bank and IMF gatherings in Washington, DC, G-8 meetings in Turin and Montreal, and WTO meetings in Cancun and elsewhere. When the peace movement re-emerged after the attack on Afghanistan, police gradually backed off, resuming the Nixon-era stance to one degree or another. Peace movements were not, after all, threatening. As if to prove the point, fifteen million people filled streets throughout the world in February, 2003, to demand that the Bush administration’s rush to war be stopped. No one – no one in authority, that is – listened.

Darth Vadar, of course, is still available to authorities who are genuinely threatened. The trouble with the peace movement was that it threatened no one. Advocates of non-violence had come to regard any challenge to the authorities’ right to direct the course of protest as counterproductive. But this wasn’t Gandhi’s or Martin Luther King’s non-violent direct action. Gandhi vowed to fill the Viceroy’s jails in the Salt March and openly defied demands to cancel the march, in hopes that his arrest would provoke a massive repudiation of colonial rule. King and other protagonists of non-violent protest in the civil rights era likewise aimed to fill the jails to expose the injustice of Southern race laws. And the New York Times’ famous decision to publish the Pentagon Papers was possible, in part, because 13,000 people had already been arrested in anti-war protests in the preceding years. Non-violent direct action works when it disrupts the status quo, focusing attention on the cause and, more important, calling into question the legitimacy that elites claim. They work by dividing elites, between those who favor repression and those who are anxious to preserve the appearance of responsiveness to public opinion in defense of their own legitimacy. Disruption, as Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven pointed out years ago, can push a wedge into elite culture, prompting some to sue for change. But, too often, the change they advocate, like that advocated by the Obama administration, is only another way of ensuring their continued rule.

The Next American Revolution, violent or nonviolent, may or may not be propelled forward by massive demonstrations in the streets. But it will need much more than that. Demonstrations are a morale building exercise for their participants. Those that actually aim at disruption – like the sit-ins of the Civil Rights era or the protests at Seattle and after – can galvanize the most dedicated activists and have some small impact on business as usual. (The Seattle action made it possible, according to some accounts, for smaller nations to at last stand up to the WTO process and bring negotiations to a temporary halt. They did not destroy the WTO.) But if we want real change, we will have to look elsewhere; we will have to find a way to actually seize power.

Political Revolutions Are About Seizing Power

The revolution we need is first and foremost a political one. It will only succeed when advocates for democratic institutions gain effective power. That should be obvious, but for too long too many of us have talked as if all we need do is persuade or cajole or “force” politicians to adopt our favored reform and the world would be wonderful. The whole enterprise of Washington-based advocacy is premised on the notion that, bit by bit, carefully focused campaign by plodding campaign, we can get the laws made that will solve our environmental problems, ensure equality of opportunity for every child, woman and person of color, remake American foreign policy for the good of humankind. It hasn’t worked and it won’t work unless and until people who are committed to democratic accountability hold office. It won’t work, moreover, until those same people have the power to dismantle the permanent government and the institutions that support it and rebuild from the ground up.

How do we seize power? The example of the violent revolutions of the past suggests, as Mao is supposed to have said, that real power comes out of the barrel of a gun. But Mao knew, as Lenin before him quickly found out, that military victory alone would not confer power. Lenin and his colleagues found that they would have to work with an entrenched state and the by no means sympathetic officials that ran it if they were to exercise power. Mao had accepted supporters of all sorts from among the wealthier peasant and merchant and political classes and had to find ways to deal with all of these if his vision was to prevail. The result in both cases was a reign of terror that eventually engulfed much that both men held dear.

Nonviolent revolutions likewise face dilemmas of power that have to be overcome if the revolution is to yield its promises. In many cases compromises prevail and revolution falls far short of what it could have been. But the first step is to wield power, and in the case of nonviolent revolutions, that comes with a peaceful transfer of power. It comes through elections decisive enough to allow the new cadre of elected officials to begin the difficult process of overturning the old order and building anew. Massive public support, both along the way to power and once power is gained, is a necessary component of this process. But officials must have the power to make the necessary changes. There is no alternative, no “power in the streets” that can substitute for power at the institutional level, no magical change in attitude that can bring incumbents of the old order to “do the right thing,” unless we mean by “the right thing” to step down and cede power to advocates of change.

Building a movement that can effect real change, that can overturn the undemocratic institutions that hold us in thrall, is thus the central objective at this stage of the Next American Revolution. In the following chapters, we look at the requisites for such a movement and tactics that can move it forward. We argue that such a movement will be impossible without broad support from Americans of all stripes. We insist on the importance of working in and through the wealth of existing organizations that make up American civic life. We look at the nitty gritty of organizing a movement, and we explore the many venues in which it can begin to revolutionize our politics, from neighborhood and city to county, state, and the national arena. We make a case for re-embracing electoral politics but on new grounds, forwarding “citizen candidates” without compromising commitments to the parties but genuinely accountable to the movement for democracy. And we consider how and where citizens can begin to take democracy into their own hands and make the decisions that elites refuse to make.


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