portland independent media center  
images audio video
newswire article commentary portland metro

economic justice | political theory

Reform vs. Revolution is a false dichotomy

Judging by the ever widening gap between the various factions on the American political left, it would seem that the age-old "reform vs. revolution" debate is still alive and well today. The question is should it be?
Reform vs. Revolution is a false dichotomy

In order to properly answer that question, we need to define some terms.
Sixties political activist Abbie Hoffman said "Revolution is not something fixed in ideology, nor is it something fashioned to a particular decade. It is a perpetual process embedded in the human spirit." A "revolution" can take many forms, but is most commonly thought of as "significant political change that often includes major shifts in culture, economy, and socio-political institutions. Revolutions have occurred throughout human history and vary widely in terms of methods, duration, or motivating factors.


Advocates for "reform" on the other hand believe that gradual democratic changes in a society can ultimately change a society's fundamental economic relations and political structures. They point to numerous examples of social justice and environmental victories as a result of their willingness to engage a corrupt system on its terms through the art of compromise. But this rational has started to carry less weight as the world becomes increasingly aware of the fact that we are the precipice of ecological and economic collapse and we no longer have the luxury of "time" for slow incremental change. We are witnessing the logical and inevitable economic consequences of over-population, resource scarcity, inequitable and unreasonable consumption, and unsustainable economic growth.

Which brings us to the heart of the matter as it relates to the falsehoods of the reform vs. revolution dichotomy.

The capitalist class has shown remarkable solidarity and class consciousness in developing a strategy to repress the "social justice" movements, both by force and by trying to split the movement where it is weakest. i.e. the division between its revolutionary and reformist wings. The main efforts expended by the police, politicians and media have been directed to splitting the reformists away from the revolutionaries by literally creating an image of violent, out of control "anarchists" who are ruining the party for everybody and should be shunned or constrained. And just like Pavlov's dog, the Left has taken the bait hook, line, and sinker.
Be it by race, class, gender, ethnicity, religion, and of course by political persuasion and affiliation, the "powers that be" have always sought to divide the masses for the purposes of diminishing their ability to oppose the goals of the state. The power-elite have discovered that by forcing single issue politics to the forefront of people's consciousness, they can "create" wedge issues (like gay marriage and flag burning) that invoke powerful emotional responses which in turn cause people to focus on the less significant issues than the one's that truly matter in their daily lives.
Add to that the self-righteous bickering about what the most effective course for bringing about change is, or what constitutes "acceptable" forms of dissent and what doesn't and you have effectively destroyed any hope of unity or solidarity between groups that share commonality on a host of important issues. The truly sad part of this is that unity and solidarity was possible without anyone having to sacrifice their principles had they just avoided the anarchist snickers of intellectual arrogance and the liberal glares of judgment that play right into the oppressor's hands.
Shouldn't we have taken lessons from history and evolved enough politically to put a stop to the incredibly divisive circular firing squad that ensues when social justice groups focus on differences in tactics instead of acknowledging similar goals?

Who says I can't salute the Earth Liberation Front and support the Sierra Club at the same time? Who says I can't appreciate both the contributions of the "black bloc" and our local liberal peace groups? Who says participating in direct actions and working within the construct of the existing political system for change are mutually exclusive? More importantly, why did we "buy" into these linear notions?

Of course, the most common answers to that question revolve around personal notions of what constitute morality and the importance of steadfastly maintaining one's principles. But isn't morality ultimately a reflection of "class outlook"? Perhaps we should begin our analysis here?

Some would say that merely seeking to mitigate the conditions and the suffering of masses of people, rather than uprooting and abolishing the causes of that suffering is immoral at its core. Their notion of what constitutes "morality" corresponds to a revolutionary understanding that we cannot eliminate the suffering of the masses as long as this capitalist-imperialist system remains in tact. Thus they see all attempts to bring about incremental political progress within the construct of a corrupt system as "na´ve liberal ideals" that fail to adequately address the problems and will only delay the inevitable revolution.

But the self proclaimed political "moderates" describe their approach as being rooted in what is "effective" in the real world. They characterize anarchists and revolutionaries as troublemakers that give peaceful protests a bad name. They are usually white middle class liberals who are quick to point out their moral allegiance to non-violence which includes disdain for property destruction. They are well versed on what the state has told them are the acceptable forms of dissent and they consistently point to Gandhi and Martin Luther King as their mentors.

As a long time Green party activist, I know these people well.
Unlike many of them, I have evolved politically as the situation on the ground has changed.



I have watched as the last vestiges of connectivity in our forests have been hacked away for corporate profit. I have watched thousands of endangered species of plants and animals go extinct as a result of reckless policies based on shortsighted greed. I have watched the salmon and the bees disappear. I have watched as 90% of the world's big fish have vanished. I have watched as corporate monoliths like Wal Mart have participated in predatory capitalism by squashing local businesses by using slave labor in China to produce their goods. I have watched the revolving door of the FDA with corporations like Monsanto who conspire together to patent the very essence of life itself and claim it for their own. I have watched the horror of factory farms and the unthinkable cruelty that goes with them. I have witnessed an unjustified attack and occupation of a sovereign nation that has resulted in the death and suffering of millions of human beings under the false guise of a war on a verb. I have watched as genocide runs unchecked in Darfur and most favored nation status is awarded to China. I have watched disaster capitalism and the privatization of human essentials become the norm. I have watched as fascist elements have riddled our constitution and bill of rights. I have watched as our elected representatives debate what constitutes torture.

All things considered, somehow, speaking of incremental change doesn't seem to make much sense. A paraphrased quote from "V" for Vendetta seems to be much more on target.

... ... So if you've seen nothing, if the crimes of this government remain unknown to you then I would suggest you allow the fifth of November to pass unmarked. But if you see what I see, if you feel as I feel, and if you would seek as I seek, then I ask you to stand beside me one year from tonight and together we will give them a revolution they will never forget! -V

Call yourself whatever you want and evolve at your own pace, but at least acknowledge that time is no longer a luxury we can afford and act appropriately.

As former Green party presidential candidate David Cobb once said, "Just put me down as a reformer revolutionary."

-StevetheGreen