HOPE AND REVOLUTION
If there is anything that defines the world as we approach the end of the twentieth century, it is the loss of hope.
The fundamental reason for this loss of hope is that there seems to be no alternative to the capitalist system. Communism provided the fullest articulation of apparently revolutionary ideas in the twentieth century, and it has turned out a disaster. The idea of revolution has been defeated by the reality of it.
Without an alternative to the system, fundamental change seems out of the question. We seem doomed to live in the grip of a system which defines human life in terms of its own imperatives of profit and loss, competition and inequality. It seems that the deepest human values and most important human relationships must forever be subordinated to the needs of the economy and the dictates of the elite.
Hope in the future and belief in the possibility of fundamental change belief in the possibility of revolution are inextricably linked. The defeat of the idea of revolution has led to an end to the belief that human beings have the capacity to create a human world.
My purpose in this book is to show that we can triumph over the system to create a truly democratic society.
A Note on "Revolutionary Democracy"
Throughout this book I use the term "revolutionary democracy" to describe the society I believe we should aim to create. "Democracy," "socialism," and "communism" have all been corrupted to mean something other than what their original adherents had wished. "Communism" quickly became a caricature of its original vision. "Socialism" focuses too narrowly on economic arrangements to be an adequate term, and in practice has meant little more than planned capitalism. "Democratic socialism" and "social democracy" are terms for welfare capitalism; social democratic parties are simply sophisticated instruments of capitalist rule. "Democracy," to the extent that it means "rule by the people," is the essential element in meaningful social change, but does not by itself convey that, to be democratic, a movement must be revolutionary. Thus "revolutionary democracy."
The Meaning of Revolution
"Revolution" has historically meant different things to different people. In the American Revolution, to bankers, merchants, and slaveowners, revolution meant freedom from British control, to consolidate their power as an elite. To the small farmers and laborers who were its backbone, the revolution meant establishing equality and radical democracy in the New World. Once independence had been won and the rank-and-file were no longer needed, the Founding Fathers moved quickly to limit democracy in the new republic.
To workers and peasants in Russia in 1917, revolution meant equality, radical democracy, and collective freedom, while to the Communist Party it meant something quite different: the ability of the party elite to guide the economic development of Russia. Immediately after the October Revolution, the party took steps to destroy the power of workers' and peasants' committees in field and factory, and to consolidate party control.
The meaning of revolution does not depend only on the economic interests of who is defining it. The capture of political power by the American elite reflected their view of humanity. They saw themselves as the cultured few who were fit to rule. Their rule would eventually benefit the whole society within a framework which they would direct. Similarly the Communist seizure of power in the Russian Revolution was not mere cynicism on the Communists' part; rather, it reflected their view of who was fit to rule. The party would rule on workers' behalf, supposedly to their eventual benefit.
What we mean by "revolution" then depends largely on our view of people. Democratic revolution and truly democratic society can only be based on a view of ordinary people as fit to rule society.
I believe that the basis for a truly democratic society can be found in the values and relationships of ordinary working people. I maintain that the people who do the productive labor of society who mine its coal, build its cars, care for its sick, teach its children have goals and values which fundamentally conflict with the goals and values of the class of people who control the society and reap the rewards of this labor. Ordinary people struggle to achieve their goals in every area of their lives with their co-workers, their husbands and wives and children, their friends and neighbors. These goals taken together constitute a different vision of what human life should be, a different idea of what it means to be a human being, from the vision of the ruling elite.
Revolution, in my view, does not mean simply a new economic structure, and it does not mean control by a new elite. It means transforming all the relationships in society to accord with the values, goals, and idea of human life of ordinary working people.
There seem to me to be two values which are fundamental to most people's lives and which are critical to creating a new society. Most people believe in equality and in commitment to each other. Revolutionary democracy means changing all the relationships and institutions in society to reflect the values of solidarity and equality.
Revolutions occur when people gain sufficient confidence in their own view of human life and in themselves as the makers of history to shape all of society with their vision.
The Importance of a Revolutionary Conception of Change
The idea of revolution has no legitimacy in contemporary society. Yet a revolutionary conception of society is essential if we hope to understand the world around us or to change it.
The reason for this lies in the nature of the system in which we live. Capitalism is not merely an economic system. It is a system of human relations, which projects and enforces its own view of the world as its primary source of control. The essence of the capitalist view of the world is a view of people: the idea that capitalist society expresses human nature.
According to this view, society is competitive and unequal, driven by greed and self-seeking, because that is the way people are. The goal of society is economic development; the goal of the individual is to produce and consume. Society is a jungle in which only the fit survive, and the most fit rise to the top. Whatever is good comes from the top of the social order. The feudal aristocracy claimed that the order of society was the will of God and therefore eternal. The capitalist class claims that the order of society is human nature, and therefore cannot be changed.
Capitalism holds that self-interest is the fundamental human motivation. Capitalism defines the possibilities of human society in terms of this view, and it shapes the fundamental relationships in society, such as economic relations, to conform to this view. Capitalism means a society constructed on selfishness as the basis of human development.
The culture of capitalism has great power to convince us that the world cannot be different, because "this is the way people are." In this competitive world, we are taught to be always on the defensive. We are forced to compete for grades at school and for jobs when we graduate. The stories we read in the newspaper, the ideas we are taught in school, our experiences on the job can all serve to convince us that people really are just out for themselves.
To understand that the world can be different, we have first to realize that people are different from what capitalism says they are. We have to realize that selfishness is not the fundamental impulse of most people's lives.
The heart of a political vision is thus not a view of economic or political structures but a view of people. The revolutionary vision which I develop in this book is a view of people which shows that most people are moved primarily by goals other than self-interest and thus are capable of creating a new society together.
In addition to an alternative view of people, a revolutionary vision must provide a coherent explanation of social change and a method for analyzing events and issues. Above all, it must furnish a basis for action: it must allow us to understand history in such a way as to change it. In this book I use my alternative view of people to develop a different reading of the present crisis in world affairs and the history which has led to it, and a different view of the way out of it.
There are two tests for the truth of a theory of social change. One is how satisfactorily a theory seems to explain our experience. The second is how successfully it enables us to act. These are the two tests which I believe previous theories of social change have failed. They are also the standards against which the ideas proposed in this book should be measured.
Why Revolution Is Necessary and Possible
Any number of serious problems which we face seem to call for fundamental change. Unemployment and homelessness in the U.S., the continuing slaughter in Central America and South Africa and the Middle East, the destruction of the environment: each of these is linked more or less directly with the operation of the capitalist system. It can be argued that each will require systemic change to solve.
But these problems are divorced from the texture of most of our daily lives, and our sense of the possibilities of human society does not really hinge upon their solution. If all these problems were somehow solved tomorrow, we would still need to create a new society, and we would have precisely as much ability to do so as we have today.
The necessity for revolutionary change does not lie in these important problems. It lies rather in the nature of capitalism as a system of human relations, and in the nature of the attack which capitalism makes daily upon the things most essential to our humanity: our understanding of ourselves and our fellow human beings and our relationships with other people.
All the institutions of capitalist society are geared toward breaking the ties among us from which we derive self-understanding and support, and through which we learn about the world around us and gain the confidence to act with others to change it. The culture of competition and inequality which characterize capitalism influences every aspect of our lives. The education system attacks the self-confidence of our children, to get them to accept their place in an unequal society. Work is designed to undermine the collective relationships and self-confidence of workers, to wrest control of the work process out of their hands. The media systematically misinform us of the real problems in the world and the real solutions. The consumer culture constantly encourages us to judge our personal worth a sense of worth already undermined by every other aspect of the culture by the car we drive or the dress we wear or the cigarette we smoke. In every aspect of our lives, our human values are under attack by capitalist culture.
The need for revolution comes from the dehumanizing nature of capitalism in the daily life of all who live within this system.
If the necessity of revolution does not derive from specific problems like unemployment or the destruction of the environment, neither does the possibility of change. The possibility of revolution comes from the values and ideas about human life which most people share, and the nature of the struggle against capitalism in which they are already engaged.
The idea which I advance in this book which most flies in the face of conventional ways of thinking about human beings is this: that the struggle to humanize the world is the most essential of human activities, and one in which most people are engaged in their everyday lives. Most people, in the little part of the world they think they can control, are engaged in a struggle against the dehumanizing influence of capitalism on their lives. When parents try to instill in their children a sense of real values instead of the designer-jean values of television; when husband and wife try to support each other in the face of the assaults of the outside world; when friends help each other rather than compete; when teachers try to raise the expectations of students whom the school is trying to beat down; when workers try to restore some meaning to work that management is trying to render meaningless: when people do any of the many things that they do every day, they are trying, consciously or not, to resist the dehumanizing culture of capitalism. To the extent that they have supportive human relationships in any aspect of their lives, people have created them by struggling to transform capitalist relations into their opposite.
People's motivation in this everyday struggle is not self-interest or hope of gain. It is to do what they think is right, and to act in a way that accords with their idea of what human life should be.
The necessity and possibility for revolutionary change lie in the vast gulf between the world as it is and the world as most people would have it to be. The logical end of the struggles in which most people are already engaged is the creation of a new society which expresses their values and their idea of what it means to be human.
What Do Capitalism and Communism Have In Common?
For all their apparent differences, the societies of the United States and the Soviet Union and China, as well as France and Poland and Germany, are alike in one fundamental respect: they are class societies, controlled by privileged elites, who make more or less show of democracy as they manage disenfranchised populations.
The members of this world elite have more in common with each other than with the ordinary people of their own societies. These elites corporate leaders and politicians and party "experts" control the economy and direct development. Capitalists and Communists can differ endlessly on whether "the market" or "central planning" is more effective, yet still agree on the essential point: the need to exclude the mass of people from real political power.
How could it happen that societies that claim to be so different could be at bottom so similar? The answer to this lies in certain fundamental similarities between Marxist and capitalist ideas.
Marx's goal was to end exploitation and alienation in human society. He intended his theories as a "science of revolution," which would discover the fundamental laws of history, and in so doing enable people to understand the dynamics of modern capitalist society and to change it.
Capitalism, according to Marx, was a stage in the history of economic development. Like earlier stages, it was destined to be superseded by a new system, because there would come a point at which the private ownership of the means of production would act as a brake on further economic development. At this point, the capitalist system would be destroyed by the class which it had brought into existence the industrial working class, the "proletariat." The proletariat would then create socialist society, based upon common ownership of the means of production, in which exploitation would cease to exist.
Marx's model of history did not see working people as conscious agents of change who act on the basis of their own anti-capitalist values. Instead, observing the savage power of industrial capitalism, Marx defined working people primarily as dehumanized and passive victims of economic forces who, when they are moved to action, are moved by these same forces. While he believed the capitalist and the working class to have opposing interests, Marx saw them motivated by essentially the same goal to get a greater share of the wealth.
Marx's theory of social change did not challenge the capitalist view that self-interest is the primary human motivation. Marx believed with the capitalists that history is driven by economic development, which in turn is driven by greed. Marx maintained, however, that greed leads not to permanence but to revolution. He thought that the actions of the capitalists would lead to revolution and socialism.
Capitalism and Marxism both see ordinary people as the passive victims or beneficiaries of the actions of elites, within a history driven by economic development and self-interest. It is this fundamental similarity in their view of people that leads to the practical similarities between capitalist and Marxist societies.
The Economic Model of History
If it is true that most people are engaged in a struggle to humanize the world, then why have we not seen this struggle before or realized its significance? And if it is true that Marxism has always led to revolutions which contradict the vision of their makers, why has Marxism not simply been rejected by revolutionaries?
The answer to both these questions lies in the nature of the models or paradigms of human behavior and social change through which we understand our experience. Thomas Kuhn describes these paradigms in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. A paradigm is an explanatory model through which scientists interpret their data and make sense of the world which they observe.
Kuhn gives Ptolemy's model of the solar system as an example of a paradigm. Before Copernicus, it seemed obvious to people that the earth was stationary and that the planets and sun revolve around it. The calculations of planetary motion made by Ptolemy and other ancient astronomers were all based on this model.
Once scientists agree upon a model for understanding their observations, Kuhn explains, they must exclude from their field of vision phenomena which do not fit the paradigm. A paradigm in this way is "like a box"; the phenomena which do not fit the box are often not seen at all. Ancient astronomers tended to "see" only those phenomena which fit their conception of the relation between the earth and the heavens.
As science progresses, however, scientists increasingly encounter phenomena which do not fit the model. This "failure of existing rules" leads to a state of insecurity and crisis in the affected scientific field, and leads to a search for new rules a new model to account for what the old model cannot explain. Ptolemy's paradigm of a stationary earth failed to account for certain observable phenomena, and predictions made on the basis of Ptolemy's model led to unexplainable errors in the calculation of planetary motion. Ancient astronomers began to search for a way to make sense of their observations.
Even though scientists may be confronted by severe and prolonged anomalies observations for which the accepted model cannot account says Kuhn, and "may begin to lose faith and even to consider alternatives, they do not renounce the paradigm that has led them into crisis" until a new paradigm is at hand. The paradigm of a stationary earth was clung to for centuries in spite of its obvious failures as a model:
Once it has achieved the status of a paradigm, a scientific theory is declared invalid only if an alternative candidate is available to take its place....The decision to reject one paradigm is always simultaneously the decision to accept another, and the judgment leading to that decision involves the comparison of both paradigms with nature and with each other.
The adoption of a new paradigm is what Kuhn calls a "scientific revolution." A scientific revolution is a "transformation of vision," rather than simply a new interpretation of existing data. It constitutes a new world view. When Copernicus proposed that the earth moved around the sun, his new model accounted for the observed deviations from Ptolemy's model. More than that, however, this new paradigm caused a revolution in men's thinking about the earth and the heavens, and revolutionized the problems and methods of astronomy. Such "scientific revolutions," says Kuhn, come "like a gestalt switch" or "a lightning flash."
Though Kuhn's focus is on scientific revolutions, he suggests that "Something like a paradigm is prerequisite to perception itself." Paradigms provide the structure through which all people, not merely scientists, order and understand their experience.
I have described Kuhn's analysis at some length because it throws light on the present crisis in our capacity to understand the world and to change it.
Capitalist and Marxist theories of history and social development, in spite of their apparent differences, have remained within the same paradigm of history driven by economic development and the same view of people.
Marxism has been the only coherent and systematic model of social change posed as a revolutionary challenge to capitalism. The Marxist model, however, is in fundamental conflict with the revolutionary vision it is intended to fulfill; it cannot lead to the society which it envisions. Marxism is in crisis. Since no alternative revolutionary theory has come along adequate to replace it, the crisis affects a far wider range of people than those who think of themselves as Marxists or who have the scantest knowledge of his ideas. It affects all those who yearn for a better world.
Kuhn shows that people do not abandon an explanation for how the world works, however much their experience may seem to contradict it, unless another paradigm is available. However badly Marxism has failed, no satisfactory alternative paradigm of revolutionary change has come along to take its place. Marxism has thus continued to hover like a dark cloud over the revolutionary imagination of the twentieth century.
The fundamental condition for a new and popular revolutionary movement is a new understanding of the role of ordinary people in society, and a new paradigm of social transformation based upon it. The essential element of a new paradigm is that the struggle to change the world is the most human and most pervasive of activities. Like scientists who have been trained to exclude from the "box" of our vision any experience which does not fit the established paradigm, we simply have not been able to see this struggle going on around us everyday.
The key elements of a new paradigm are that most people have goals and values opposed to those of capitalism and Communism; that, far from being passive, most people are already engaged in a struggle to create a new society; that it is the irrepressible struggle of people to humanize the world, rather than the forces of economic or technological development, that drives history; and that ordinary people, rather than intellectuals or a revolutionary party, are the source of the idea of a new society, and of the values that should shape it.
I should explain what I mean by a "new" paradigm or model of change. The ideas and values which I will discuss have underlain every revolutionary struggle of the past, and are already part of most people's sense of how the world really ought to be. In this sense, there is nothing new about what I will say. At the same time, by fashioning these common feelings into a coherent model for understanding the world, I hope to reveal their revolutionary significance.
For most of the twentieth century, the world has been trapped between capitalism and Communism. With the collapse of Communism, we are presented with an historic opportunity to create human society on a new basis. The first step to being able to change the world is to see it with new eyes.