This letter will speak of social revolution. But how is this possible, since certain arbiters of opinion have already explained that following the collapse of real socialism the word revolution has fallen out of fashion? Perhaps in the back of their minds is the belief that all revolutions prior to 1917 were simply precursors to the “real” revolution. And if the real revolution has failed, clearly this is a subject that may no longer be discussed.
As is their custom, these right-thinking people continue to exercise ideological censorship, assuming the prerogative of conferring or denying legitimacy on words and fashions. The views of these bureaucrats of the spirit (or more precisely, of the media) continue to be diametrically opposed to ours: Previously such people believed the Soviet monolith to be eternal, while today they view the triumph of capitalism as an unalterable reality. They take it for granted that the substance of any revolution must involve bloodshed, accompanied by an indispensable backdrop of marches, gestures, fiery speeches, and banners waving in the breeze.
Hollywood cinematography and Pierre Cardin fashions were constantly present in their formative landscapes, so that today when they consider Islam, for example, they think of women’s dress, which causes them much concern. And when they speak of Japan, as soon as they have discussed the economic plan they can hardly wait to express their indignation that the kimono has never quite been phased out. If as children they were raised on a diet of books and movies about pirates, later they felt drawn to Katmandu, island vacations, preserving the environment, and “natural” fashions. If instead they relished westerns and action movies, later they viewed progress in terms of a war of competition and revolution in terms of gunpowder.
We are immersed in a world of codes of mass communication in which the formers of public opinion impose their message through newspapers, magazines, radio, and television; a world in which writers of limited intelligence determine which themes may even be discussed; a world in which reasonable people inform us about today’s events and explain to us the way things work. The company of those who may express opinion gather daily before the cameras. There in civilized fashion the psychologist, the sociologist, the political consultant, the fashion expert, the journalist who interviewed Khadafy, and the ineffable astrologer hold forth, one after another. And then all of them shout at us in unison: “Revolution? But that’s so completely passé!” In short, public opinion (that is, published opinion) maintains that everything is improving, despite a few setbacks, and certifies, moreover, the demise of the revolution.
But what body of well-articulated ideas has been presented to discredit the revolutionary process in today’s world? To date nothing more serious than talk-show opinions. In the absence of vigorous conceptions that merit rigorous discussion, let us go on at once to matters of substance.
1. Destructive Chaos or Revolution
This series of letters presents a number of commentaries regarding the general situation in which we now live. These descriptions lead to the following dilemma: Either we let ourselves be swept along by the tendency toward a world that is ever more absurd and destructive, or we give events a different direction. Underlying this formulation is the dialectic of freedom versus determinism, the human search for choice and commitment versus the acceptance of mechanical tendencies and processes with their dehumanizing end.
The continuing concentration of big capital to the point of worldwide collapse would be dehumanizing, as would be the results: a world convulsed by hunger and overflowing with refugees; a world of endless fighting, warfare, chaos, and constant fear; a world of abuse of authority, injustice, and erosion of basic liberties; a world in which new forms of obscurantism will triumph. It would be dehumanizing to go once more round the same circle until some other civilization arises, only to mechanically repeat the same stupid steps again—that is, if this is still possible after the collapse of the first planetary civilization that is now beginning to take shape.
Within this long history, however, one’s own life and the life of each generation is so short and so immediate that one sees the wider destiny of all as a simple extension of one’s own destiny, rather than one’s own destiny as a particular case of the wider destiny.
So it is that the lives people live today are far more compelling than any thought of the life that they or their children will live tomorrow. And, of course, for millions of human beings the situation is so urgent that they have no horizon left to consider some hypothetical future that might come to pass.
At this very moment there are already far too many tragedies, and this is more than enough reason to struggle for a profound change in the overall situation. Why, then, do we speak of tomorrow, if the pressing problems of today are so great? Simply, because the image of the future is increasingly manipulated and we are admonished to put up with present circumstances as if this crisis were something insignificant to bear. “Every economic adjustment,” their theories go, “has a social cost.” “It is regrettable,” we are told, “that for all of us to be well off in the future you will have to endure these hard times today.” “And when before,” they ask, “has there ever been such technology and medical care as the wealthy nations have today?” “Soon,” they assure us, “your time will come, too.”
And while they put us off, the actions of those who promise progress for all continue to widen the gap that separates the opulent few from the majorities who suffer ever-greater outrages. The prevailing social order locks things into a vicious circle, feeding on itself as it expands into a worldwide system from which no part of the planet is free.
It is also clear, however, that as positions become more radical and unrest grows more widespread, people everywhere are beginning to see through the hollow promises of society’s leaders.
Will everything end up, then, in the war of all against all? Will the future be culture against culture, continent against continent, region against region? Will it be ethnic group against ethnic group, neighbor against neighbor, and family member against family member as people flail about without direction like wounded animals trying to shake off their pain? Or instead will we include and welcome all the differences within the direction of world revolution?
What I am trying to express is that we are facing the alternative of either destructive chaos, or revolution as a direction that goes beyond the differences among those who are oppressed. I am saying that each day both the global situation and the particular situation of each individual will become more filled with conflict, and it would clearly be suicidal to leave our future in the hands of the same people who have directed this process so far.
No longer do we live in times in which one can simply wipe out all opposition and then the following day proclaim, “Peace reigns in Warsaw.” These are not times in which ten percent of the population can do as they please with the other ninety percent.
Yet today the world is becoming a single closed system where, in the absence of a clear direction for change, capital and power simply continue to accumulate at the expense of everything else. The result is that within this closed system one can expect nothing more than a continued mechanical increase in general disorder. And the paradox of closed systems tells us that any attempt to impose order on the growing disorder will only further accelerate the growth of that disorder. The only way out of this predicament is to revolutionize the system, opening it up to the diversity of human needs and aspirations. Proposed in these terms, the theme of revolution takes on more than usual importance, with a scope and ramifications it could not have had in former times.
2. Of What Revolution Are We Speaking?
the previous letter outlined positions regarding the questions of labor versus big capital, real democracy versus formal democracy, decentralization versus centralization, anti-discrimination versus discrimination, and freedom versus oppression.
If at present capital is steadily being transferred to the banking system, if the banking system continues to gain ownership of companies, nations, regions, and the world, then revolution implies that the banking system be transformed so that its services are made available without charging usurious interest.
If a company is constituted so that capital receives the profits while the workers receive salaries or wages, if company management and decision-making rest solely in the hands of capital, then revolution implies that profits be reinvested, diversified, or used to create new sources of employment, and that management and decision-making be shared by labor and capital.
If the regions, provinces, or states within a country have their hands tied by centralized decision-making, then revolution implies restructuring that centralized power into regional entities forming a federal republic, and for those regions to be similarly decentralized in favor of locally based power, from which all electoral representation must derive.
If health and education are provided in an unequal way to the inhabitants of a country, then revolution implies free access to education and health care for everyone, because these are clearly the two highest values of the revolution and must replace wealth and power in the current social paradigm. Viewing everything in terms of the priorities of education and health care provides the correct framework for dealing with the highly complex economic and technological challenges facing today’s society. It seems that in no other way, certainly not while wealth and power remain the highest values, can a society with evolutionary possibilities be formed.
The central argument employed by capitalism against new proposals is to cast doubt on them by continually asking where the financial resources will come from and how productivity will be increased, implying by this that it is only lending by the banking system and not the work of the people that is the origin of resources. Besides, what is the purpose of productivity if this production simply vanishes at once from the hands of those who produce it?
Nor are we taught anything extraordinary by the model of society that has been in place for some decades in certain parts of the world (and that is now beginning to fall apart). Whether education and health care are really progressing so remarkably in those countries still remains to be seen in light of the growing plagues, which are not only physical but also psycho-social.
If it is part of their education to create an authoritarian, violent, and xenophobic human being, if part of progress in health care is rising alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicide, then such a model is obviously not valid. Although as humanists we will continue to admire the well-organized centers of education and the well-equipped hospitals, we will endeavor to ensure that they are placed at the service of all people without distinction. However, in regard to the content and meaning of education and healthcare, there are more than ample grounds on which to object to the present system.
This letter speaks of a social revolution that will result in a dramatic change in people’s living conditions, of a political revolution that will alter the power structure, and ultimately of a human revolution that will create its own paradigms in replacing today’s decadent values. The social revolution to which humanism aspires will come to pass through gaining the political power necessary to carry out appropriate transformations, but gaining that power is not in itself an objective. Moreover, violence is not an essential component of this revolution. What good would it be to follow the repugnant practices of imprisoning and executing one’s enemies? What would be the difference between this and what oppressors have always done?
India’s anti-colonial revolution was brought about by popular pressure and not through violence, and while this revolution remained unfinished due to the limited scope of its ideology, it did demonstrate a new methodology of action and struggle. The revolution that overthrew the Iranian monarchy was also unleashed by popular pressure; a takeover of the centers of political power was not even necessary as these were already “emptied,” destructured, until eventually they ceased to function altogether. Then, the intolerance that followed ruined everything.
Thus, revolutions are possible by various means, including electoral victory. But in every case drastic transformations of society’s structures must immediately be set in motion—beginning with the establishment of a new legal order that, among other things, will fully exhibit the new social relationships of production, prevent abuses of power, and modify the function of those structures that, although they come from the past, are still capable of being improved.
Today, however, neither the revolutions that are dying nor the new ones being born will progress past the stage of speeches within this stagnating social order. They will not develop beyond the stage of organized mobs if they do not advance in the direction signaled by humanism, that is, toward a system of social relationships whose central value is the human being, and not other values such as “productivity” or “a socialist society,” for example.
But to place the human being as the central value implies an idea that is totally distinct from what is generally understood today by the term human being. The current models used to characterize the human being are still far removed from the idea and the sensibility necessary to fully grasp the reality of what is human. Still, and it is important to point this out, beyond the confines of today’s naive and superficial models there are some signs of a revival of critical intelligence. To mention but one case, the work of G. Petrovich1 embodies concepts that presage the present development. He defines revolution as “the creation of an essentially distinct mode of being, different from all being that is non-human, anti-human, and not-yet-entirely-human.” Petrovich concludes by identifying revolution with the highest form of being, as “being in fullness” and “Being-in-Liberty.”
The revolutionary tide already in motion expresses the desperation of the oppressed majorities, and it will not be stopped. But this alone will not be enough, because a suitable direction for this process will not come about solely through the mechanisms of “social practice.” What is imperative at this time, when the human being is so completely circumscribed, is to move from the field of necessity to the field of liberty by means of revolution. Future revolutions, if they are to be more than putsches, palace coups, or the simple redress of class, ethnic, or religious grievances, will have to take on an inclusive and transforming character based on what is essentially human. And beyond the changes they will produce in the concrete situations of their countries, their character will be universalist and their objectives globalizing. Thus, when we speak of “world revolution” it is understood that the character and objectives of any humanist revolution or any revolution that becomes humanist, though it may take place in a limited area, will carry it beyond itself. And every such revolution, no matter how insignificant the location in which it takes place, will involve the essentiality of every human being. World revolution cannot simply be proposed in terms of “success,” but rather in its real and humanizing dimension. Moreover, the new kind of revolutionary who corresponds to this new type of revolution becomes, by essence and by activity, a humanizer of the world.
3. Action Fronts in the Revolutionary Process
Next I would like to expand on certain practical considerations related to creating the conditions necessary for a social force of sufficient unity, organization, and growth to position itself in the direction of a revolutionary process.
Today, the old thesis of forming common fronts among progressive forces based on minimum points of agreement has in practice become only “clusters” of partisan dissidents clinging together without connection to the wider society. The result is that contradictions accumulate among their leaders, who are reduced merely to pursuing media coverage and political self-promotion. During times when a well-funded political party could achieve hegemony over many fragments, it was viable to propose forming common fronts for electoral campaigns. Today, despite the fact that the situation has changed drastically, the traditional left continues to follow these same procedures as if nothing were different.
It is necessary to review the function of the political party in today’s world and to ask whether parties are structures that are still capable of setting revolution in motion. For if the prevailing system has completed the process of swallowing political parties, reducing them to hollow shells in an artificial activity controlled by big capital and the banking system, then a party of mere superstructure without any human base could achieve formal power (but not real power) without in the process necessarily introducing even minimal fundamental change.
For now, political action requires creating a party that attains electoral representation at various levels. It must be clear from the outset, however, that the objective of such representation is to direct the conflict to the heart of established power. In that context, a party member who becomes a representative of the people is not so much a public functionary as a reference who calls attention to the contradictions of the system, organizing the struggle in the direction of the revolution. In other words, party or institutional political work is understood here as the expression of a broader social phenomenon that has its own dynamic. In this way, while a party may reach its greatest level of activity during elections, the different action fronts that from time to time form its base will use these same elections to call public attention to social conflicts and to broaden their organizations.
Here we find important differences from the traditional conception of a party. Indeed, until only a few decades ago the party was thought of as the vanguard of the struggle, bringing together different action fronts. The proposal here is just the opposite: Action fronts organize and develop the base of a social movement, while a party becomes the institutional expression of this movement. In turn, such a party must create conditions so that other progressive political forces will be fully included; it cannot expect them to lose their identity and simply blend in. This party must reach beyond its own identity and form a broad-based front with other forces to include the many progressive factors that are now so fragmented. But this will amount to nothing more than agreements among leadership unless the party has a real base that orients the process.
This proposal is not, however, reversible; that is, this party cannot form part of a front organized by other entities that are merely superstructures. Such a party, whose real strength comes from the base organization, can form a political front with other forces that agree with certain basic conditions established by this party.
Let us now consider the various types of action fronts. Such fronts need to work in the administrative base of each country, focusing on city and local government. The idea is to develop in the workplaces and neighborhoods of the selected areas common fronts committed to actions that address real conflicts that have been correctly prioritized. This last point means that working to redress short-term grievances is meaningless if that struggle does not result in organizational growth and positioning for subsequent steps. It is important to make it clear to everyone just how each conflict is directly related to their standard of living, to health care, and to education (and as their understanding deepens, workers in the fields of health and education will tend to become direct supporters and later form part of the cadres necessary for directly organizing the social base).
The same phenomena that we find taking place with political parties in the present system are also occurring in unions and labor organizations. Thus, the proposal is not to win control of labor organizations or unions but to bring together the workers who will as a consequence replace the former leadership’s control. In this area it is important to encourage all systems of direct elections as well as any conventions and assemblies that commit the leadership — requiring either that they take positions on concrete conflicts that provide meaningful responses to the demands of the base or be bypassed. And certainly, labor action fronts must design their tactics with the objective of growth in the organization of the social base.
Finally, setting in motion social and cultural institutions that act from the base is of the utmost importance, because it allows communities that suffer discrimination or persecution to come together in a context of respect for human rights, finding a common direction notwithstanding their particular differences. The thesis that all ethnic groups, collectivities, and human groupings subject to discrimination must become strong by themselves so as to confront the abuse they are subject to exhibits a significant lack of understanding of the predicament we are all in. It is a position that stems from the notion that “mixing” with foreign elements will cause a loss of identity, when in reality it is precisely their isolated position that leaves them exposed and easily eradicated, or else left in a situation where they become so radical that their persecutors can justify direct action against them. The best guarantee of survival for minorities suffering discrimination is for them to form part of an action front with others to channel the struggle for their demands in a revolutionary direction. After all, it is the system taken as a whole that has created the conditions for discrimination, and these conditions will not disappear until that social order is transformed.
4. Revolutionary Process and Revolutionary Direction
It is important to distinguish between revolutionary process and revolutionary direction. From our point of view, a revolutionary process is understood as a set of mechanical conditions that are generated as the system develops. In this sense, such development creates factors of disorder that are ultimately either supplanted, assert themselves, or end up causing a breakdown of the entire scheme of things. According to this analysis, the globalization toward which the world is now proceeding is generating acute factors of disorder in the overall development of the system. And, as we have discussed in previous letters on more than one occasion, this process is independent of the voluntary action of groups or individuals. the problem that now arises is what, precisely, will be the future of this system, given that it is mechanically proceeding to revolutionize itself without the intervention of any progressive orientation whatsoever.
The orientation at issue depends on human intention and escapes the determinism of the conditions produced by the present system. I have already presented on previous occasions my position on the non-passivity of the human consciousness, its essential quality of not being simply a reflection of objective conditions, its capacity to oppose such conditions and to devise a future situation different from life at present [See “Fourth Letter to My Friends,” sections 3 and 4, and Contributions to Thought].
It is within this mode of liberty, within conditions, that we interpret the revolutionary direction.
It is through the exercise of violence that a minority of the wealthy and powerful impose their conditions on the social whole, organizing an order—an inertial system—that simply continues its mechanical development. Viewed in this way, the modes of production as well as the resulting social relationships, the legal order, the dominant ideologies that regulate and justify this order, and the apparatus of the State or Parastate by means of which the whole of society is controlled, are all revealed as instruments that serve the interests and intentions of the minority holding power. But the system continues to develop mechanically beyond the intentions of the powerful few as they endeavor to concentrate ever more the factors of power and control, in the process only further accelerating the process of the prevailing system, which increasingly escapes their control.
The resulting disorder will clash with the established order, provoking the powers that be to apply proportionately greater resources for their protection. In critical periods, the whole of society will be disciplined with all the violence that the system has at its disposal. And this leads to the maximum recourse available: the armed forces. Is it entirely certain, however, that the armed forces will continue to respond in the traditional way during times such as these when the whole system is heading toward a global collapse? If they do not, the momentous shift in the direction of current events that could result is a subject that merits further discussion.
Even a brief examination of the final stages of the civilizations that have preceded the present one shows that armies have indeed risen up against the established powers, and have as well become divided by the civil wars for which the seeds were already present. But because the system was unable by itself to introduce a new direction into this situation, it simply proceeded along its catastrophic course. Will the world civilization now taking shape suffer the same fate? In the next letter we will have to further consider the case of the armed forces.
With this letter I send my warmest regards,
August 7, 1993