Tuesday, January 15, 2013

"The change in people has to be made by the people themselves."

Among the excellent political books I read last year was Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century, by James and Grace Lee Boggs, published in 1974. I had intended to write much more about the book than I did, and may still, but in the interest of clearing out my draft folder, allow me to share with you this passage from the chapter on Mao and the Chinese Revolution:
Many radicals, consciously ignoring the profound questions raised by Lenin after the Russian Revolution*, still believe that all one has to do is eliminate oppressive institutions with one audacious blow and the oppressed masses will automatically change. Many people continue to believe that human behavior is completely determined by objective conditions. [...] Institutions which promote hierarchy and exploitation must be eliminated, but institutions are not rubbed out like marks on a blackboard. The oppressed are an integral part of the system which oppresses them, unless they break loose from that system. Therefore until they begin to change themselves, i.e., to become self-determining rather than determined, they cannot get rid of oppressive institutions. Moreover, eliminating oppressive institutions only provides the external conditions for the transformation of people; it does not guarantee that people will change. The change in people has to be made by the people themselves.
(*The Boggses were neither Leninists nor Maoists, but they took the revolutions seriously, and took seriously the problems they encountered. In one of my three posts on the book last year, I said that "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." Indeed, their discussions of four 20th century revolutions make for fascinating and, in my view, invaluable reading. Add in their brilliant discussion of American history, in particular the corrosive effects of the American tradition of compromise, and you have a volume very much worth serious attention.)

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