Reform and revolution

Letter by Lucy Lant, Bristol

ImageI was delighted that you and others felt a need to respond to my letter (PN 2543). There is clearly a need to re-open the reform vs revolution debate amongst PN readers so I shall continue with it.

The road to revolution is not travelled on the byways of reform. You don’t build revolutions by doing deals with oppressive systems of power. Reforms will always be on their terms, not ours.

PN editors suggest that we somehow force corporations to be kinder to their workers and to the climate. But this ignores the intrinsic nature of corporations to exploit both people and planet for profit. (It also ignores the fact that governments are very much in the pockets of these corporations.)

As long as they exist, that is what they will do. How then are we to apply such a force?

This is a classic liberal mistake. Why waste time and energy in reforms that ultimately change nothing?

During the plenary session of the Rebellious Media Conference in London in October last year, Noam Chomsky explained that the role of radical media is to ‘say the things that it wouldn’t do to say, to say the things that it wouldn’t do to think’.

Radical media should be a forum where people explore the world they want to create. Michael Albert affirmed this by saying now is our chance to seize the moment. As Peace News organised the conference, I am totally perplexed by your somewhat pessimistic and defeatist stance.

I totally disagree that there aren’t radical and viable alternatives to capitalism being pushed for in our movements in the west.

Greece is the most obvious example of where the masses are refusing to accept austerity. Here too, such movements are building.

People are fighting the cuts, the attacks on the NHS and attacks on the planet. People are building free economies, credit unions and local currencies, people are fighting for food security, land rights and local democracy. Most people are longing for alternatives to this alienating and destructive system. They need direction and support; don’t water down their fighting spirit!

PN advises that we could “roll back the worst excesses” in the next five to 10 years. Such procrastination may sit comfortably with the western middle classes, who still somehow benefit from this disgusting arrangement of world power, but the world’s poor would disagree, and so would most other threatened life forms on this planet. They need a voice, they don’t have the luxury of time and they needed a revolution yesterday. How can we then sit back and push only for reforms that are not commensurate with the problems we are facing?

Capitalism is not robust. It is a crisis-ridden system that is now staring into the abyss of terminal decline. This is because it is predicated on the idea of infinite growth, requiring infinite resources on a finite planet. It has thrived and flourished for the last 150 years on cheap oil and coal, but that era is drawing to a close as the peak oil shocks start to set in.

Peak oil is certainly one of the things it ‘wouldn’t do to say’ and it’s noticably absent from much revolutionary discourse. The whole of western civilisation is based on this resource. Its decline will define the 21st century. As revolutionaries, we are facing both unprecedented opportunities but also greater risks of fascism and oppression from those in power.

I do agree that, for now, we face a severely atomised, brainwashed and apathetic public but the answer is not to lie back in a dull fog of defeatism just because of a perceived lack of success. Marx explained that revolutions can occur very quickly after quite dormant periods. Even the Roman Empire couldn’t satisfy the people with bread and circuses forever.

As Frederick Douglas, a 19th century ex-Afro-American slave and human rights activist, once said: ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand: it never has done and it never will.’

Editor's Response:

Thanks for your letter, Lucy. Peace News shares your sense of urgency, but we have different perspectives about the immediate road ahead.

We are committed to the radical transformation of society. We are ‘for nonviolent revolution’ - the theme of this year’s Summer Camp, which we hope you’ll be at again. We’re also committed to ‘saying the things it wouldn’t do to say’.

However, we think that putting things in terms of ‘reform vs revolution’ is not a useful way of framing the challenges facing us.

Let’s put this as concretely as possible. How are we going to build social movements that are powerful enough to overthrow capitalism, dismantle patriarchy and institute a more human social order?

Is it going to be done by simply demanding ‘revolution now’? Or is it going to be done by building ever-stronger groups, organisations, unions, coalitions and movements?

If the latter, what is it we need to build strong organisations? As George Lakey points out in this issue, to build an organisation, you generally need to win smaller victories to keep your energy up and to recruit new folk.

Let’s be even more concrete. Peace News would like to see a single, properly-funded national health service in this country, free from prescription, dentist’s and opticians’ charges, free of market distortions, with the abolition of the private health sector (whose staff are trained in the NHS: each doctor costs the NHS £200,000 in training, on average). More ambitiously, we’d like to see healthcare institutions under the control of health workers and patients rather than bureaucrats, investors and pharmaceutical corporations.

For the immediate future, however, the progressive agenda in relation to health care is mainly defensive. Unfortunately, we aren’t even strong enough as a radical movement – at the moment – to stop the government and the corporations carving up the NHS.

We’re a long way from being able to take over the NHS, or even to force through some basic reforms.

Think of the people in your neighbourhood and your hospital. Communities and health workers are a long way from even thinking about direct democratic control of health centres and hospitals, trying to figure out how that would work in practice, or building organisations to effect such changes.

To make these observations isn’t the ‘fog of defeatism’ or ‘procrastination’. It is the reality that we have to work with, while we try to lay the basis for a movement that can carry out a revolution – in healthcare, as in other areas of life.

We don’t have the space here to go into this as it deserves, but we promise to return to this important debate about strategy. – Eds