“In school, history is taught around dates and figures. We learn that revolutions are led by gallant individuals, and fought on certain days. We see images of revolutionary flags billowing on liberated mountaintops, of magnificent leaders applauded by masses of people, of moments of struggle when old orders collapse and new ones take their place.
But we rarely read of the decades of hard organizing that led up to those moments, the fight for small gains all along the way, the many working people of all colors and genders and sexual orientations who fought for survival day in day out making the movement a reality, the countless smaller uprisings that won smaller victories, the many that were crushed along the way. And we learn very little, too, about the struggle that takes place after momentary victories – the incredible work of transforming ourselves and those around us, of building institutions that facilitate a free society, of fighting again and again to keep what we’ve won, of the beautiful struggle of resisting, reclaiming, and reconstructing over and over again.
We have to come to terms with that history, although it might not be as appealing. We’ve got to outgrow the idea that the revolution is an event to be measured in moments and actions, and that it’s just around the corner – that all we need are oppressive conditions and a match to light the flame. Those notions are based on immature premises, proven wrong time and time again, that the worse things get, the more likely we are to rise up – that reform, because it makes peoples’ lives better, is counter-revolutionary. We have to confront that thinking, because it’s popular, it’s sexy, it comes up over and over throughout history, and because it is cruel, empirically false, and incredibly divisive to the movement.
On a very basic level, that kind of thinking is heartless. A theory that compels us to oppose measures that would materially improve people’s lives in the service of some abstract goal cannot possibly be driven by the compassion, love, and idealism that must be at the center of any worthwhile revolution. The consequences of theories like this are disproportionately felt by those already most oppressed and most marginalized, and often proposed and defended by those with great privilege.
But even more to the point, it’s empirically untrue. The theory itself – that deep crisis on its own leads to revolution if it is met with a spark – is bankrupt. If all it took was conditions being terrible and a vanguard marching in the streets to wake everyone up, we wouldn’t need to be having this conversation. It’s already bad enough – just how awful does it have to get? The truth is it’s harder to fight back under worse conditions, not easier. The many working people all across this country struggling around the clock to support their families, straddled with debt, or facing foreclosure can attest to how hard it is to scrape together the time to be a revolutionary while constantly facing crisis. So can political organizers living in police states like Egypt, or under military occupations like Afghanistan, or close to starvation in places like Haiti where people eat cakes made of mud to survive. Desperation doesn’t mean it is any easier to be a revolutionary; it just means more suffering.
There is no magical tipping point, no low point so low that it automatically compels us to fight, no spark so compelling that is spontaneously wakes us all up. We fight because of our concrete experiences of oppression as well as the little bittersweet tastes of freedom we have pieced together, because of our education and the culture around us or the unexplained ways in which we have learned to reject them, because of hard organizing people have done for decades to prepare us, because a whole host of other factors we don’t even understand. In many cases, actually, we rise up not when we are absolutely desperate, but when we have won a little bit – enough to realize our collective strength.
Revolution is not event, but a process. There is nothing inevitable about it, and our freedom is not historically determined. To win it, we have to build movements able to fight for it, movements that struggle over long periods of time to knock down the institutions of the status quo and replace them with the institutions of a free society. That means growing, practicing, learning, teaching, and winning things that put the movement in an increasingly better position to win more; it means fighting back to protect ourselves while pushing forward to create new possibilities.”