- with comments 18 years later.
You may have noticed the changes in the logo of Christopher Shillock, "poet, philosopher and revolutionary" who now styles himself "Minnesota poet and radical".
What's going on here?
There's much I could say about the first change: identifying myself as a Minnesotan. Briefly though, the kind people of this state have made me a home here. This act continually delights and amazes me, and I wished to acknowledge it.
The big change though, is from "revolutionary" to "radical". Has the old man gone soft?
Sometime in late September of 2001, I was gazing at a poster which had hung many years on my wall. It showed Malcolm X holding a gun and underneath was written "By Any Means Necessary". And I realized that would not preclude someone from flying a passenger airliner into a crowded building. Sadly, down off the wall came my old hero, Malcolm.
Revolutionaries justify violence through the Doctrine of Necessity: any act can be justified, if, and only if, it is the only way to prevent an even greater evil. Generally this is true. Suppose that, by assassinating Hitler, you could prevent the slaughter of millions of innocent people. (Let's kill off the German General Staff too, to make the situation here more plausible). And that this were the only way to prevent a (or even The) Holocaust (which is plausible). In such circumstances, with such a disparity in the numbers and weighing the guilt of one party vs. the innocence of the other, only a madman would seriously urge us to spare Hitler's life.
OK, this is not a situation we face every day. But, on the other hand, we do make choices every day. We may obey the laws. We may pay our taxes - or we may not. We may consume - or we may consume less, or we may just not consume red meat. We may oppose the war in Iraq, or we may support it. The point is that we do make choices and we make them on the assumption that our choices are of some practical consequence.
Right now though, there is no practical alternative to capitalism. It's really the only game in town; has been since about 1989. Communist, anarchist or even Socialist principles are not even part of any serious public debate in any country. Hell, in the United States, we can't even get health care. Indeed, the very rhetoric of liberation and class struggle sounds quaint and antique today.
And these days the industrialized working class is about the most reactionary group around. With good reason. They have been given a small, but precious stake in the system. In times of social upheaval, they have the most to lose. There simply won't be a revolution in the foreseeable future. In fact we can paraphrase Rousseau to say "Men live in democracies everywhere and they call out for their chains".
In the absence of any real prospect of a true revolution, there can be no justification for violence. It does not weaken the ruling class in any way; it will not help the poor. In fact, lately, the practical consequences have been exactly the opposite. It gives our rulers an excuse to increase their powers, and their victims are most often the poor.
So what then, in the present situation, is the right thing to do? What does any good at all? To be honest, I'm not sure. If I did know, I guess I'd be off doing it right now. But I do know that killing does no good whatsoever; and that that makes its practitioners, whether by sanction of government or non-governmental bodies, or out of personal conviction, quite simply, murderers.
Some of you will say that I was crazy ever to believe in a working class revolution. I surmise you were not around in (or have forgotten) the 60's. There actually was a time when the people of the world had a reasonable hope for the future. They built barricades in the streets, they burned down banks, they took off for the fields and jungles to do battle with their rulers. It didn't seem irrational to think that such a powerful movement could succeed. OK, so maybe I was deluded, but I wasn't crazy.
Others would say that you don't really need to get out in the streets and fight; because the real revolution will take place in the way people think; that it's a fine thing just to call yourself a revolutionary and to think revolutionary thoughts and say revolutionary things.
Spare me! Please!!
I haven't given up the struggle altogether. I still keep Karl Marx's picture on my wall. Actually, his analysis of international monopoly capitalism is more relevant now than ever before. And I still advocate the abolition of private property, which would clearly be in everyone's interest (except for the 5% of the world's population who own 90% of the our goods). But, in Malcolm's place, I have up the poster from the movie "Hamlet 2000" It reminds me that, when intellectuals finally do take action, how easily they leave bodies strewn all over the stage.
My foresight was spot-on with the rise of right wing populism. The fascist temptation has gripped the working class both in the U.S. and internationally. On the other hand, Socialist rhetoric has enjoyed a revival in the U.S. It’s hardly revolutionary - no one mentions the abolition of property - but ever since I lost my own home a couple years ago, I’m not sure that’s such a good idea.
My feelings on revolutionary violence have gone back and forth. There's still a wide spectrum of non-violent tactics that we could deploy. We’re the creative and the intelligent ones, after all. (The destruction of inanimate objects I've never counted as violence.) Then, instructed by the Arab Spring which began with taking over the streets and ended up with entire neighborhoods choking to death on nerve gas, I'm reminded that ultimately, our oppressors will stop at nothing to retain their privileges.
Nelson Mandela offered to lay down his arms whenever his enemies did. He was about the greatest political figures of the 20th Century so I really can't go wrong following Nelson Mandela.
And on my walls? I’m afraid Marx, Malcolm and Che have all come down. In their place I have hung a profusion of art works by my family and friends. This is my home, a concept I didn't appreciate 18 years ago; in fact I didn't appreciate it until I lost my home and the Twin Cities arts community gave me shelter. Yes, I have gotten soft now: I need the comfort of a home, surrounded by walls with a presence of the people who care about me.