What Does the Revolution Look Like?
A while back I wrote "After the Revolution, What?" outlining how a post revolutionary society could move towards one based on equality and solidarity without capitalism or a Soviet-style dictatorship, a long term process of revolutionary transformation. I premised everything in that article on the presumption that a successful revolution had already occurred. Here I want to discuss what, exactly, such a revolution would look like United States.
By "revolution" here I don't mean the long term process of reshaping society. I mean the relatively quick act of disarming those people (the plutocracy and its allies) who use violence against people trying to make society more equal and democratic. Such violence is a fundamental part of society today, even if it is usually invisible as a behind-the-scenes threat. The reason, for example, that people do as their boss tells them, instead of quitting their jobs and working together for shared goals using land and other material wealth that does not "belong" to them to make a much more enjoyable and satisfying life for themselves, is violence. When people attempt to use the productive wealth of society in this proper and revolutionary manner, the upper class and the politicians loyal to them call it theft, and they use police, and, when necessary, the national guard and even military soldiers to squash people who try to make such a revolutionary change. The plutocracy, by controlling the major parties and the mass media, control the election system and hence the government, and, when necessary, they use the government to direct overwhelming violence against people pushing for revolutionary change. That is the problem that a revolution must solve.
How can people strip the plutocracy of its power to use violence when it has, as they say, the 101st Airborne Division?"
The answer to this question hinges on the fact that the 101st Airborne division is not an inanimate object that anybody can "have" or possess, the way one possesses a gun. The only thing the plutocracy has at the moment is a fairly high level of confidence that the members of the 101st Airborne division will obey orders issued by a chain of command at the top of which is the president (or a state's governor) who is the democratically elected representative of We the People.
If, however, soldiers no longer believe that the president is the representative of We the People, then they will not view presidential orders as legitimate, and they may very well refuse to obey them. This would mean the plutocracy had been stripped of its power to use violence. What will it take to make this happen?
It will take a mass, popular movement with openly revolutionary goals. Such a movement can make the enormity of the conflict--between We the People versus the president acting on behalf of the plutocracy--crystal clear to everybody, including soldiers. On one side will be seen millions of people saying society should be shaped by the values of equality and concern for each other and democracy. On the other side will be a president attacking those values violently, to make society unequal, with people pitted against one another and controlled from above. This can only happen when We the People in huge numbers rise up and challenge corporate and government authority, with shared revolutionary goals articulated loudly and clearly. This is not a violent act. Breaking the law in order to work together for shared goals by using land and other things that "belong to capitalists" for this purpose is not a violent act. Defending the right to do this, however, may require violence.
When people rise up this way, the plutocracy will probably try to use persuasion and bribery to stop it. But if this doesn't work they will have to either let people keep making revolutionary changes or fight back. If the plutocracy allows the people to make sweeping changes forever then that is the same thing as giving up its power, in which case a peaceful revolution has occurred. Great!
In the more likely event that the plutocracy eventually resorts to violence, then the president (having obtained the presidency only by demonstrating his loyalty to the plutocracy) will order soldiers to attack the people. When this happens there is a very good chance that many soldiers, seeing that the president does not in fact represent We the People, will view that order as illegitimate and refuse to obey it, especially if soldiers perceive the Americans against whom they are ordered to attack as people just like themselves or their families, as would be the case if the uprising is a massive and popular one.
Of course even if most soldiers sided with We the People, some soldiers would probably remain loyal to the president. The military would then be divided against itself. For a revolution to succeed, the American people, allied with the soldiers who support them, would have to disarm the remaining soldiers, forcibly. This is essentially how revolutions have happened in the past: it is how France's King Louis XVI was overthrown, why the Tsar of Russia and the German Kaiser abdicated after World War I, why Communism in Poland and Russia collapsed, and why the Shah of Iran had to flee. Without wishing to suggest that a revolution would be easy, or involve no sacrifice and bloodshed, it is nonetheless not unreasonable to believe that it is possible even in the United States, because the plutocracy does not really "have" the 101st Airborne Division.
Some might object that the above revolutionary scenario overlooks an important difference between military force today compared to when past revolutions succeeded in earlier centuries: atomic weapons. It takes, they would say, only one finger on the button to launch a nuclear attack on the American people, so it matters little that most soldiers would side with the people.
I think this nuclear Armageddon scenario is implausible, but not on the grounds that the plutocracy is not savage and willing to commit mass murder. In the situation that we are considering, when most of the military has gone over to the side of a mass, popular uprising, dropping nuclear bombs on Americans would only be counterproductive for the plutocracy. The plutocracy's best strategy would be to regain power in a counter-revolution. But to do this requires maintaining as much public legitimacy as possible, and dropping nuclear bombs on Americans would destroy any remaining legitimacy the plutocracy may have. If they did resort to using nuclear bombs it would only drive yet more of their few remaining loyal soldiers into the camp of the people. Even the most selfish soldiers would be left with no reason to remain loyal to the plutocracy because, after such an Armageddon, what was left of society would be unable to produce the wealth that the plutocracy once used to bribe such soldiers. The plutocracy would be left even more powerless. The plutocracy may be vicious, but they are not stupid.
What all of this means is that the key to a successful revolution is building a movement that mobilizes huge numbers of Americans to challenge official authority with revolutionary aims. Moreover, the movement must be one that unifies the people against the plutocracy, so that a soldier will perceive an order to attack any particular part of the movement as equivalent to an order to attack the other parts of the movement as well, including the part that consists of the soldier's own family members, relatives and neighbors.
For such a movement to develop, it must be based on the widely shared values and aspirations of Americans that the plutocracy opposes. It must therefore be based on the core values of equality, solidarity (concern for one another), and democracy. This is what distinguishes a revolutionary movement from a mere multitude (no matter how large) of single-issue reform movements. Narrowly framed single-issue reform movements are not unifying because inevitably the plutocracy frames these issues in a way that pits the people who want one reform against people who want a different reform. The plutocracy's politicians are thereby able to pose as the only ones who have risen above the "special interests" and are therefore the legitimate representatives of We the People whom soldiers must obey.
This does not mean, however, that single-issue reform efforts must stop fighting for their just causes. But it does mean that they must frame their fight for their just cause as an occasion for fighting for the revolutionary aim of making society more equal, democratic and mutually supportive in all walks of life--the opposite of how the plutocracy wants society to be. They must make this framework explicit, and within this framework connect with other people fighting for other just causes within the same revolutionary framework, so that a multitude of unconnected reform struggles becomes a single revolutionary movement.
Earlier I mentioned the need for people to "rise up and challenge corporate and government authority, with shared revolutionary goals articulated loudly and clearly." Obviously, I cannot predict exactly what people would do. But a proposal by David Stratman--Agenda for a New Society-- is probably in the same ballpark as what people would likely do. I invite you to read it (the link is forthcoming.)