"Can there be a revolution in the U.S.?"



People tend to think of the United States as a place where a revolution could never happen because the working masses are generally not out in the streets marching against capitalism and the government (although this has changed somewhat with the occupy movement). American history is portrayed as smooth process in which things kept getting better and better. "Sure, there was slavery, but it was abolished; women eventually got the right to vote; sweatshops and tenements eventually became things of the past; and now we have a black man as president."

Or so we're told.

In fact, American history is rich with conflict and explosive rebellions. People who doubt this should pick up Howard Zinn's masterpiece, A People's History of the United States which details how the injustices in the previous example were fought, organized against, and eventually defeated by the people.

The Boston MassacreIt's important to remember that the United States government is itself a product of a revolution. People who think a revolution could never happen in the U.S. forget that we've already had one. The American revolution began when groups of colonists tried to get their grievances redressed within the framework of the British colonial political system. When they were rebuffed, ignored, suppressed, and shot it radicalized them. Eventually, they came to the conclusion that only independence could put an end to their problems, and the Declaration of Independence was issued in 1776 as a reflection of that sentiment. The first government created by the colonists under the Articles of Confederation was scrapped after class conflict between debt-ridden farmers, many of them revolutionary war veterans, and wealthy merchants, bankers, and slaveholders overwhelmed the new political structure. Local police forces joined the farmers in Shays' rebellion and there was no federal force to crush them; the merchants had to raise a private army of mercenaries to do the job.

There is no reason a similar process of radicalization could not occur again in America with its current government and lead large numbers of people to revolutionary conclusions. It happened in the 1960s, and it may happen again with the occupy movement.

A big misconception about revolution is that things have to get really bad for large numbers of people before they revolt and draw revolutionary conclusions. The extreme conditions that gave rise to revolutions in Russia in 1917, China in 1949, France in 1789 are part of the reason why people think this.

Of course people have to be dissatisfied with the status quo if they are going to do something extreme like risk their lives to overthrow the political and social order. But revolution can't be reduced to how hungry people are, how oppressed they are, or how bad things get, and a revolution isn't mainly about bad conditions. People were not starving or dying in trenches when the Russian revolution broke out in 1905 nor when the largest general strike in world history shook Paris, France in May 1968 when 10 million workers struck; living conditions and political repression were worse in Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Syria and yet the 2011 revolutions that swept the whole of the Arab world started in Tunisia, Yemen, and Egypt (not that things were great in those countries; the point is that "bad conditions = revolution" is too simplistic).

Revolution is a complex process of conflict driven by explosive anger from below; this anger only becomes revolutionary when people also feel empowered, like their voices and actions matter, and that things just can't continue as they have in a volatile and difficult to describe mix of anger, empowerment, confidence, and exasperation.

The Russian revolutionary Lenin explained this when he wrote that for "a revolution to take place it is not enough for the exploited and oppressed masses to realize the impossibility of living in the old way, and demand changes; for a revolution to take place it is essential that the exploiters should not be able to live and rule in the old way. It is only when the 'lower classes' do not want to live in the old way and the 'upper classes' cannot carry on in the old way that the revolution can triumph."

This is exactly what happened in Tunisia. A fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire after local police beat him, took his property, and local political authorities refused to even hear his case. Before he died in the hospital, all of Tunisia began demonstrating because they saw in him and felt his plight as their own (unemployment is rampant so people resorted to selling fruit and other odd jobs to make ends meet even though the elite were fabulously wealthy). Police picking on defenseless, impoverished fruit vendors and humiliating them was nothing new; what was new was Bouazizi's reaction, a gesture of self-destructive rage and hopelessness. He dramatized and illuminated (for lack of a better word) the feelings and sufferings of millions and sparked a revolt that spread like wildfire throughout the region because the people of each nation faced the same conditions and problems, although the names and methods of their dictators differed.

Once mass numbers of people came into the streets, they met repression and ran up against a political order that was unwilling and unable to meet their demands for employment, higher wages, and political freedom. The clashes escalated from protests into riots, strikes, and general strikes, and dictators were forced to step down after decades of iron-fisted rule.

In the U.S., we do not have a dictatorship but we do have a political order that resists change and represses people who exercise the rights they theoretically are guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution. Part of the reason why the explosive struggles in this country have not become revolutionary is because the political system has been flexible enough to incorporate some changes, grant some concessions, and give people some amount of freedom. A system that does not bend will break, and so people who want to see capitalism ended in the U.S. face a challenge that does not exist in many other countries that have had revolutionary movements. But again, the example of Paris, France in May 1968 shows that capitalist democracy and relative prosperity/comfort is no guarantee against revolution.

The question really is not whether or not a revolution can happen in the U.S., the question is how do we organize today to maximize the chances of that happening down the road.

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