Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Some quotes from James & Grace Lee Boggs and attendant thoughts

Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century, by James and Grace Lee Boggs, was published in 1974 by Monthly Review Press. It was written, they said, "for those Americans of our time who have become aware of the need for profound and drastic change, who want to do something to improve human life and are ready to dedicate their lives to this goal, but who are unable to see a path, a direction for their dedication". I'm about halfway through the book, and it's a fascinating read.

In the opening chapter, the authors seek to define what revolution is not, before getting into what it is. Here they are on rebellion:
Rebellion is a stage in the development of revolution, but it is not revolution. It is an important stage because it represents the "standing up," the assertion of their humanity on the part of the oppressed. Rebellions inform both the oppressed and everybody else that the situation has become intolerable. They establish a form of communication among the oppressed themselves and at the same time open the eyes and ears of people who have been blind and deaf to the fate of their fellow citizens. Rebellions break the threads that have been holding the system together and throw into question the legitimacy and the supposed permanence of existing institutions. They shake up old values so that relations between individuals and between groups within the society are unlikely ever to be the same again. The inertia of the society has been interrupted.

Only by understanding what a rebellion accomplishes can we see its limitations. A rebellion disrupts the society, but it does not provide what is necessary to establish a new social order.

In a rebellion the oppressed are reacting to what has been done to them. Therefore rebellions are issue-oriented. They tend to be negative, to denounce and expose the enemy without providing a positive vision of a new future. They also tend to be limited to a particular locality, or to a particular group—workers, blacks, women, chicanos. For all these reasons the time span of a rebellion tends to be limited—usually to a few days or a few weeks.
It's interesting thinking of these terms in context of the Occupy movement of the last six months. In many respects, it's unclear whether it is (or has been) merely a rebellion, or in fact has the possible seeds of a revolution. The continued refusal for demands to be issued has to be seen to be a good sign, in this respect:
When those in rebellion talk about power, they are employing the rhetoric of revolution without the substance. In fact, they are simply protesting their condition. They see themselves and call on others to see them as victims and the other side as villains. They do not yet see themselves as responsible for reorganizing the society, which is what revolutionary social forces must do in a revolutionary period. Hence a rebellion begins with the feeling by the oppressed that "we can change the way things are," but it usually ends up by saying "they ought to do this and they ought to do that." So that while a rebellion generally begins with the rebels believing in their right to determine their own destiny, it usually ends up with the rebels feeling that their destiny is, in fact, determined by others.
Once you start making specific demands, you have accepted the logic of the oppressor, or revealed that some modest reform might quiet you down. And once the state is able to offer you something to satisfy a demand, that offer can be softened, eroded. Many people have written about Occupy and the question of demands, but it's a difficult question, because of who we are as Americans, what we've become accustomed to. I don't mean to offer any criticisms of Occupy here, especially given my personal lack of actual political experience. My true radicalization, you might say, is yet to come, even if in recent years my diagnosis and understanding of the problems facing us has become ever more radical.

Anyway, the authors continue in this vein, turning to the U.S.:
It is very hard for those who have been oppressed to get beyond the stage of asking others to do things for them. It is particularly difficult in the United States. The Welfare State and the abundance created by exploitation of other countries and by advanced technology have made possible a vast apparatus of social workers and welfare workers whose economic well-being depends on expanding the agencies for helping the oppressed. This country has also had the wealth to create a vast network of programs by which the oppressed are pacified and the most militant leaders are rewarded with high-paying jobs in community projects.
We can replace the Welfare State with the huge non-profit industry, perhaps, and I'd expand on "the abundance created by exploitation of other countries" to include our consumer culture and television and cars, among many other countless things pacifying us all, lulling us into sleep, into inaction, into believing politics can be reduced to voting, into not even noticing, or at best remembering, how much our lives are shaped by that exploitation. How many of us have jobs that depend on it directly?
It is hard to go beyond rebellion to revolution in this country because of the widespread belief that revolutions can be made as simply and instantly as one makes coffee. Therefore the tendency is to engage in acts of adventurism or confrontation which the rebels believe will bring down the system quickly. It is always much easier for the oppressed to undertake an adventuristic act on impulse than to undertake a protracted revolutionary struggle. A protracted revolutionary struggle requires that the oppressed masses acquire what they never start out with—confidence in their ability to win a revolution.
I don't know that people believe revolution is as easy as all that, not anymore anyway. It's seen as hard, all too hard, and we grow impatient, our attention wavers, and we have to get up early for work tomorrow and hey isn't there something on TV tonight? And there's the still, all-too-widespread belief that the system itself is somehow salvageable (but it's not, it's not). It's the only framework most of us understand. (By the way, I almost elided that reference to "adventuristic acts", wary that it could be read as implicit attack on or criticism of anarchists or Black Bloc. It is neither.)

Overall, that opening chapter was interesting, if a little too general, but I found the next four chapters riveting. In these chapters, the authors explore the histories and problems of four revolutions of the 20th century: the Russian, Chinese, Guiné, and Vietnam. They sketch brief histories of the revolutionary movements in these countries, all too much of which is embarrassingly new to me, but they are primarily interested in discussing the ways in which those movements, and their leaders, posed questions about the specific problems they faced, how they responded to failures, how positions were debated and decided on, how each different revolution went beyond the ones that came before, learning and teaching new lessons, and so on. In doing so, they almost have me persuaded of the need of a vanguard party, which is surprising given that I have long more or less dismissed the idea out of hand, given my attraction to anarchist arguments against it. But the problem does remain, doesn't it, how to move forward, how to expand, without becoming politically muddled.

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