Revolutionary Traditions as Resources for Social Change

Presentation at Left Forum Panel on “Revolution and Protest, Yesterday and Tomorrow,” April 18, 2009

by Paul Le Blanc

First of all, I want to relate the International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest to the electoral victory of Barack Obama. That is a development that stands as —

  • a repudiation of the destructive and irresponsible conservatism represented by the Bush regime,

  • a powerful and historic blow against racism,

  • a mobilization of popular support for, and expectations of, an end to such imperialist adventures as the Iraq war,

  • an expression of support for social and economic policies placing human needs above corporate profits.

In his campaign speeches, President Obama often put forward perspectives and made far-reaching promises that are consistent with the kinds of things we on the Left have been advancing for many years. The fact that he did this for the purpose of winning the election means that there is a powerful appeal among broad layers of the population for the progressive agenda of peace and social justice. This is a time of great opportunities.

But Obama also remains committed to the interests of the big business corporations that got us into the mess we are in. The political and social-economic life of our country is shaped by great inequalities of power and wealth. The great majority of us make a living through selling our ability to work for a paycheck. Those paychecks are supplied, more or less, by a long-standing power elite (huge multi-national corporations, plus the military-industrial complex, tied in with governmental structures and the political machines of both major political parties) — the owners and managers of the political and economic and cultural life of our country. Because he will not challenge this system of exploitation, Obama will not be able to provide solutions to the problems that afflict our country and our world.

Ultimately, we need what Lincoln once called “a new birth of freedom” — in our case, a society with no more power elites, a world in which our resources and labor are shared so that the free development of each person will be the condition for the free development of all, as Marx put it. That will take a while to achieve, but the election results demonstrate that this is a moment to win a growing number of people to such a goal. This new world — what some of us call socialism — will not be brought about by the electoral victories of any mainstream politician (not even Obama). It will only come about through what Frederick Douglass referred to as the thunder and lightning and storms of social struggle.

Revolutionary change does not simply fall from the sky, but can only be the culmination of a vast accumulation of social protests and movements. The Encyclopedia shows that they stretch back for decades and centuries. In our own time, there is a powerful need for such protest actions in the United States and throughout the world. These are being generated by the realities of the status quo. My own father — along with many other labor organizers — was fond of saying that “the boss is the best union organizer.” Bertolt Brecht made the same point: “Because things are as they are, they will not stay as they are.” Protests and struggles are inevitable. The class struggle is constant — often hidden, yet sometimes gloriously and even victoriously open.

But such vitally important protests and movements for life-giving reforms (the fight to being about changes for the better) must be grounded in perspectives that can sustain these struggles and lead them beyond defeats, and beyond compromises, and beyond the erosions of hard-won gains that historically have been the fate of so many victories. The great revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg once spoke of trade union struggles as “the labor of Sisyphus” — referring to the mythical being who kept rolling an immense boulder up a hill, only to have powerful oppressors roll it back down again. Capitalism is like that. Yet it is hardly the case (and Red Rosa would never have wished to us to think otherwise) that struggles for freedom, dignity and social justice are a waste of time, or that history simply goes around in circles. To be successful in the short-run, and to culminate in emancipatory transformations in the long run, our protests and movements and struggles need to have a sense of their continuity with the freedom fighters who went before, they need to be informed by what has been called the long view of history, they need to be guided by the vision of a possible future defined by freedom, creative labor, and genuine community. All of this brings us back to the International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest.

These wonderful and wondrous eight-volumes constitute a mansion with many, many rooms. There are almost innumerable stories about revolutionaries in England in the 1600s, in the American Revolution and Civil War, the French Revolution and the Paris Commune, the Revolutions of Haiti and Mexico and Russia and China and Vietnam and India and Cuba and Algeria and Central America and South Africa, and freedom struggles throughout almost every continent on our planet. Mother Bloor once pointed out: We Are Many. The perspectives that can be found in these volumes are rich and diverse — with ideologies that embrace multiple revolutionary nationalisms, feminism, the ecological greens, the black flag of anarchy, the revolutionary ideology of the historical Jesus, the uncompromising democratic insistence on rule by the people and equal rights for all, the inclusive rainbow of gay liberation, and much, much more. Of course, throughout these volumes is the intransigent spirit of Karl Marx. As the late, great radical sociologist of our country, C. Wright Mills, pointed out almost half a century back: “To study his work today and then come back to our own concerns is to increase our chances of confronting them with useful ideas and solutions.”

This encyclopedia seeks to provide sources of knowledge, information, and inspiration permeated with values that are incompatible with all conditions in which people are degraded, enslaved, neglected, contemptible beings. It merges with other developments, such as the Left Forum, left caucuses and networks and currents in the labor movement, radical stirrings in a growing number of movements and institutions, an expanding and effervescent radicalism that even breaks through in our popular culture. This encyclopedic contribution is part of an emerging Left sub-culture that is essential for reinforcing, expanding, and deepening consciousness (essentially class-consciousness) among the majority of those whose labor and life-activity animate our economic and social, cultural reality.

What might be called a labor-radical sub-culture in the United States stretched at least from the end of the Civil War era (with the National Labor Union of William Sylvis and the Knights of Labor) down through World War II. Out of this sub-culture emerged a consciousness reflected in such things as the early preamble of the American Federation of Labor: “A struggle is going on in the nations of the civilized world between the oppressors and the oppressed of all countries, a struggle between capital and labor, which must grow in intensity from year to year and work disastrous results to the toiling millions of all nations if not combined for mutual benefit .” A rich array of radical-populist and socialist and anarchist and communist organizations and militants were shaped by and made their own contributions to this sub-culture of progressive struggle, helping to transform our country and make it better than it was. But the late 1940s saw powerful economic, social, political and cultural transformations — breaking and fragmenting that labor-radical sub-culture — that have served to pull apart from each other the radical vision and the organized sectors of the working class, to the detriment of both.

But a recomposition and revitalization of that sub-culture has slowly but surely been crystallizing in recent years. This encyclopedia — drawing together information and ideas and stories of previous struggles and revolutionary traditions — makes a contribution to that process. We hope that what the Encyclopedia offers will help students and youth in particular, and emerging layers of labor activists and radicalizing progressives, to connect with the ideas and efforts of the revolutionary brothers and sisters who have gone before. The struggle continues.