Monday , September 28 2020
“In the end we lost the battle too.” “What?” “I mean the victory belongs to the peasants, not to us."

Quo Vadis, Domine?

It’s my contention that any revolutionary action, if it’s to succeed, must involve the right combination of theory and practice, for insofar as practice informs theory, the converse is also true.

Which isn’t to say one is a substitute for the other or vice versa – there is no substitute for putting one’s body on the line when moral force is the only force at people’s disposal against guns and brute force, let’s be clear about that! – nor is one necessarily preemptive of the other. In the best of all possible worlds, both should co-exist. Nor is it to say we can always tell what the right combination is. The exact dynamic of a movement is impossible to foretell, for all movements have a life all their own, their own life-expectancies and trajectories, many possible futures. All that’s being asserted right now, this relationship shouldn’t be ignored (if only for tactical reasons).

It might be presumptuous under the circumstances to argue on behalf of any value to be attached to leadership per se (a cadre or a vanguard are some of the more derogatory terms). Indeed, the very idea of leadership appears to run counter to the very idea of a true democratic process, the idea of direct participation and that of the General Assembly, of casting of lots, and I can’t help but totally concur. And yet . . .

When we look at the composition of the GAs across the many OWS sites, and if we’re indeed to take OWS at its own word as offering us a kind of pro forma, a boiler plate for reinstating true democratic practices and processes the world over, we get a different idea. We see that consensus, that most desirable end-product of the democratic process, is deemed attainable only within the confines of small groups, and moreover, that it’s built incrementally.

True, we’ve seen a proliferation of many such groups, each trying to do their bit and stay true to their task. The question of how these groups may or may not eventually coalesce and extend concentrically so as to make the consensus widespread needn’t concern us at this point, Suffice it to say, consensus can only be reached in small groups, where anyone and everyone has ample opportunity to speak as well as listen.

To bring these considerations into sharper focus, I don’t see how my application of OWS’s own formula to the theoretical rather than the practical changes anything or violates the protocol; nor do I see why I should be called an elitist for suggesting what some might regard as heresy. I can well understand, I suppose, the outrage on the part of my many comrades-in-arms for my staying untrue to the democratic principles. And the usual gamut of objections would run here from accusations to the effect that I’m against any horizontal type of organizational structure, that I’m an autocrat, to God knows what else.

To which I say, my friends are guilty of jumping the gun, of putting the proverbial cart before the horse. In their quite understandable desire for immediate results and instant resolution, fired besides by their revolutionary zeal which indeed is hard to resist, they forget that any meaningful social change is a process, most often a painstaking process. It must have a respectable beginning; but then again, in order to stay the course, it must also have a respectable follow-through and a respectable ending.

It’s like a three-act play, really, a well-formed reality play! (Umberto Eco made that point perfectly clear when he observed in one of this essays, “Language, Power, Force,” that the storming of the Bastille was just icing on the cake.) As to the satire part, the epilogue, I suppose we can all wait and see, and then laugh at ourselves if and when we can.

Consequently, I have no apology to make for my theoretical rather than practical bias. Part of it is dictated by circumstances, a far larger part by natural inclination. We all must do what we can and what we do best; the revolution demands it. No effort should be demeaned or made light of so long as we’re working for the same cause. And there should be no litmus test either as to who is or who is not a true revolutionary, whether in terms of their ideas or whether their boots are on the ground. It’s precisely this kind of thinking which led to the Reign of Terror in the post-revolutionary France, all in the name of purity, commitment and whatnot – the ever-present suspicion that the fellow next to you was a traitor.

In defense of thought, however, as opposed to “pure” action, let me fall back on an example or two. Lenin’s speeches, for instance, have certainly gone a long way to mobilize the Russian masses. And it was no different with Marx’s Communist Manifesto which, more so than Das Kapital, his more authoritative work, made the communist ideal alive to this very day.

This is not to defend the intellectual, don’t get me wrong, only the power of the idea. Each of us has his or her work cut out for us and it’s our responsibility to do what we do best. So no, I’m not going to become a philistine all of a sudden or someone I’m simply not just because the revolution is on. That’s not my idea of revolutionary purity or staying true to the cause. Besides, how could I stay true to the cause if I can’t stay true to myself?

Now, more than ever, after OWS has suffered its first symbolic defeat – the Zuchotti Park eviction, I mean – at the hands of an increasingly militaristic state, it’s time to take five, to regroup and to reflect. The future is always uncertain, full of all manner of unexpected obstacles, detours, surprises and whatnot. But none of this really matters, no more than a walk in the woods matters, unless you’re without a compass or a clear sense of direction. So yes, it all comes down to this vision thing, where we are and whither we’re going.

Quo Vadis, Domine?

Say what you will, but education and thinking do matter. Self-education first, for how can we expect to speak the truth unless we be convinced first in our heart of hearts it is the truth? The second component, the communication aspect, is a bit more tricky, but I think a case can still be made. Not so much when it concerns the oppressed folk, those who are being dominated and have suffered all manner of indignity since day one. They know the truth intuitively, instinctively, because suffering and injustice sharpen your consciousness: it makes you see. Whom then?

This is the tricky part, for I suppose we also must reach the “movers and the shakers,” the presumed though unacknowledged and self-effacing “leaders” of the people’s movement; and marginally, to the extent possible, even the backsliders, those who’re still on the fence.

Again, I don’t believe I’m compromising any of my principles here, only being realistic. In order for any movement, however righteous, to succeed, it must have the critical mass behind it, that, plus a winning strategy. Truth alone won’t do it unless it’s preached from the rooftops. Lenin was a first-class tactician, none better; and so was Marx to an extent. We need people like that.

The panel discussion at the New School, featuring Michael Moore, Naomi Klein and some others, is a real treat, and you shouldn’t miss it if your life depended on it – yes, two-hours long but worth every precious minute of it. For those of us who are either sound-bytes bound or expect instantaneous results, let me suggest, however, two clips: the first, starting at about ninety minutes into the presentation, the second, at about one hour and forty four minutes. The first deals with structural problems we’re facing, that democracy is facing; the second, with the importance of self-education as a prerequisite to educating “the leaders” and the masses. If you haven’t the patience to view the entire discussion, your owe it to yourself to view these two clips.

Which brings another topic into sharp relief, perhaps the unexpected find of these deliberations, if not the most important one: the idea of pluralism (tolerance, really!) in the context of an open, democratic society. I used to think tolerance was a standalone virtue, divorced from any consideration as to context. No longer!

It now occurs to me that true tolerance can flourish only as a backdrop against fully established, moral and democratic values. In the absence of any such, the term is meaningless. It’s just like with deviance, which derives its meaning from what’s considered “normal.”

Well, it’s no different with tolerance, I say. To tolerate anything or anyone must presuppose a standard, a generally agreed-upon standard. And that standard had better be either a tacit or a fully-expressed agreement as to what the dominant values are, and again, they better be democratic and moral values – the only true basis for building any worthwhile and lasting consensus.

Under the circumstances, I find it rather ironic that one of my most vociferous opponents to forming a small group discussion project, and the main objection amounted to my insistence on a measure of “exclusivity,” had started deleting comments on his own community board platform as soon as some comments were deemed somewhat “less than constructive.” Quite a turnaround, I say.

Isn’t it a better strategy, I ask, to start on the less ambitious foot, by reaching the desirable accord (even if it be among the dedicated few) and then expand outwards? Before we can have total inclusion, we must have some exclusion. How else are we to turn those who are resistant or simply uncompliant, how are we to turn them to true faith if not by establishing a precedent, an example, even a form of ostracism for being defiant. But as I said, any true revolution is a process.

As to my defense of the intellectual (or the warrior, as the case may be), let me cite from the conclusion of Seven Samurai, the perennial classic by Akira Kurosawa (available for viewing and re-viewing through Hulu Plus, to include all Janus Films featuring the unforgettable Ingmar Bergman):

“In the end we lost the battle too.”
“What?”
“I mean the victory belongs to the peasants, not to us.”

Now, I submit these heart-rending lines don’t demonstrate any lack of faith in the people but precisely the opposite. Once the work is done, there’s nothing for the intellectual or the warrior to do but to fade away.

The people will have taken over, and so it shall remain.

About Roger Nowosielski

I'm a free lance writer. Areas of expertise: philosophy, sociology, liberal arts, and literature. An academic at a fringe, you might say, and I like it that way.

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