Reform Versus Revolution
It has always seemed that there's been a conflict between reformers and revolutionaries. The former relatively being described as those who want to patch up and repair the parts of the current system that cause so much misery. The latter relatively being described as those who want to completely overturn the social system in favor of a different system, one much more applicable to the wants and desires of human society. The chief aim of both has been thus: to change the current order of society insomuch that the lives of people (and animals, perhaps) are considerably improved. Both the reformer and the revolutionary are motivated by the same cause; they are plants to the same fertilizer. Their aim is to improve the lot of mankind -- to change those faults which have become inherent parts of life.
One of the most common assaults made against the reformer by the revolutionary is this: by reforming the system, by making small changes, my patching up small parts of the system, we are doing nothing but making the system more livable, making the people more tolerant of the status quo. For example, during the French Revolution, the efforts of all reformers (if there were any) were completely ineffective. Nothing was patched up. Nothing was changed. The commonplace misery of the greater 95% of the population, caused by the social relationships, was enough to motivate the mass of people to revolt and overthrow their government. It was their misery, their pain, the suffering they had endured, that made them in to revolutionaries. Reformers, the revolutionary intellectual argues, prevent that misery from existing, and thus, they prevent revolutionary tendencies from taking place. For example, reformers in the United States have created a Minimum Wage law, have sustained fair working conditions in manufacturing plants, have created unemployment payments, have erected numerous public works programs -- all things that have alleviated the miseries of the working class in the United States. If none of these things had been put in to place, if none of these reforms were given acceptance by the government, then the working class would be pretty pissed off -- they would become revolutionaries from the 16 to 20 hour working days, the repression of the will of the workers, the massive amounts of poverty and unemployment, etc., etc.. If the conditions in the United States were worsened, then working proletariat would be so moved as to revolt against the class system, and they would create a genuinely Libertarian Communist social order.
At least, that is the argument presented by those people wearing the title "Revolutionary." I think an example or two is sufficient to prove them wrong. Consider again, the French Revolution. The misery and poverty of the working class instigated them to overthrowing the ruling class. However, what was the result? Did they erect this genuniely Libertarian, Anarcho-Communist-Syndicalist social order? Did they create a society free of censorship, free of repression, free of sexism, free of racism, free of exploitive social relationships? No, they did not. What was enacted was the Jacobin philosophy, that of a Federated Republican government. That is to say, what they created upon the eve of revolution, was a system of government that the reformers had been aiming to create. If we took away the hard-earned rights that labor has earned in the United States (minimum wage, overtime pay, etc.), if we took all of those away, and a revolution were to take place because fo that, I think it's pretty obvious what kind of government the revolutionaries would set up. They would create a government that wasn't much different than the previous one, the primary differences being a fair minimum wage law, overtime pay, non-hazardous work conditions, etc., etc..
I think the essential message here is that revolution alone does convince people of the arguments of Anarchism, Socialism, Communism, etc., etc.. That is to say, the arguments of those who want to radically reorganize society so that human misery and want nearly disappear completely. That does not mean that revolution itself is a completely useless tool, without any relation to the class struggles that take place everyday in modern society. In fact, what use is revolutionary activity? Does it have any valuable, useful aspects to it? I suppose I am of the opinion, "No Peace Without Justice." I cannot see justice, in a people laying down, to make it easier for their oppressors to steal their labor and destroy their culture. Not only is such an idea devoid of justice, but it is equally devoid of sense and common reasoning. Let's take some examples... The French Resistance to the Nazi invasion of France; did these underground revolutionaries ("terrorists") help to better serve their purpose? Were they wrong for secretly building bombs to be used in destroying fortifications of the Third Reich? I don't think of any person would disagree to this argument, excepting maybe Gandhi.
Consider a more modern argument. Consider American and European revolutionaries today, "urban guerillas," etc., etc.. It was an Anarchist who shot President McKinley on his inauguration day, because of McKinley's invasion Cuba and other islands in the area. It was the Anarchist Alexander Berkman who assasinated Frick, a Capitalist whose idea of "humaneness" was working in dangerous conditions for low and unfair pay. But then again, the way governments and corporations respond to such industrial sabotage and warfare, is usually with a repression of civil liberties. It does not make the enemy more sympathetic to the cause of these radicals. At least, not necessarily. There is a good chance that the activities of bombing McDonald's and burning down Starbucks will catch the public eye, and make it a social issue. The tactic of bambing Starbucks, for example, might only have a monetary damage on a corporation that uses foreign slave labor for coffee beans, maybe $20,000 or $30,000. From the stand point of the urban guerilla, that is the point of the activity. But, this bombing puts corporate practices of Starbucks in to the spotlight of society. People will be forced to look at it and deal with it as an issue. A single bombing might very well have a greater spread of ideas and beliefs than a ten thousand printed and distributed pamphlets. Essentially, these urban guerillas would be satisfying the philosophy of Martin Luther King: by making an issue of the matter, people must recognize it and deal with it. King accomplished his goal by marching in the streets, being ripped to shreds by attack dogs of the police, beating beaten by cops in riot gear.
So, the first purpose of urban guerillas is economic damage. For preventing the corporate entity from gaining profits, that means the entire social structure breaks down. That means that no money will be funnelled to Vietnamese sweatshops so that children work 12 hours a day. That means no bribes are going to be made to the shifty governments of third world countrties. In an international Capitalist society where money is power, by inflicting economic damage on these creatures of doomsday, we are eliminating their power, their strength. That is to say, we are hindering their ability to exploit the citizens and workers of all countries. And, beyond that, to act as a current and standing threat to the corporations, to stand as the defender of internationally understood rights of the people. Corporate entities will be much more hesitant to engage in activities that bring with them a constant barrage of bombings, property defacement, etc., etc..
The second purpose, and perhaps the often unintended purpose, of revolutionary activity is to bring the issue to the spotlight, to make society look at these guerillas and understand their reasons. Sure, the great deal of conservative, right-wingers will argue that these men are deviants of the social order, an unintended consequence, probably spawned by mental illness and the inability to adaptate to society's wants. The same was said of Martin Luther King, of the Communists and the Socialists and the Anarchists, of all people who wanted to improve society and make the lives of all much easier. In fact, sometimes this second purpose is the primary purpose. There are many Animal Liberation Front/A.L.F. cells (known as "terrorist organizations" to the government) which break in to testing laboratories with video cameras. Many of them obtain video tapes from the testing facility. These tapes are then mailed to the major news media outlets, and they are often played on national television; the public then is made aware of the cruelty that is inherent in animal testing and experimentation. Lewis Heine, the photographer of the early 1900's, was capable of sneaking in to many factories and manufacturing plants, disguised as an official of the census bureau; upon gaining access, he would photograph the children laboring in machines, many of them physically deformed by the environment that they were working in. It was these photos that greatly aided the elimination of child labor from the United States and all European countries. (I'm quite curious as to why the government hasn't ever labelled this man as a terrorist, despite the fact that his tactics are nearly identical to those of the A.L.F..) It was through the use of these tactics that the goals of these revolutionaries were accomplished, by forcing the public to acknowledge the issue.
So, then, in conclusion, what is the greatest way to advance the political ideology that you hold dear? What way is most effective in advancing Animal Liberation, in destroying the Corporate State, in establishing an Anarcho-Syndicalist Federation? Is it reform, that is to say, the peaceful and lawful changing of opinions, through pamphleteering, distribution of propaganda, etc., etc.? Or, is it revolution, that is to say, breaking the law as a means and method to accomplishing your goal? In the past, both tactics have managed to gain ground, to accomplish their goals. Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, John Brown, every person who served in the revolutionary forces to accomplish and sustain the civil rights of all people -- the term terrorist that is applied to A.L.F. and Anarcho-Syndicalist cells equally applies to these people. In some of the cases, their tactics were succesful in making the enemy weaker, so that the deathblow would be much more succinct and easy. The reformers, of which we can count Henry Stephens Salt, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Robert Green Ingersoll, among so many countless other names, were successful in some efforts and unsuccessful in others. To which road should we take? It is clear that I have taken the road of the reformer, to convince the minds of men and women of alternative theories of social order, that a collective effort can be willed into existence, to change our living conditions. Whether a person decides to take the road I have, or the road of the revolutionary, I do not think anything should be held against a person for their decision, unless it is clear that their actions simply inhibit the achieving of our goals.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Punkerslut (or Andy Carloff) has been writing essays and poetry on social issues which have caught his attention for several years. His website www.punkerslut.com provides a complete list of all of these writings. His life experience includes homelessness, squating in New Orleans and LA, dropping out of high school, getting expelled from college for "subversive activities," and a myriad of other revolutionary actions.