On Revolutionary Leadership and Mass Action

Future Hope column, February 13, 2011

By Ted Glick


“Some stood up once and sat down.
Some walked a mile and walked away.
Some stood up twice then sat down.
I’ve had it, they said.

Some walked two miles then walked away.
It’s too much, they cried.

Some stood and stood and stood.
They were taken for fools
They were taken for being taken in.

Some walked and walked and walked
They walked the earth
They walked the waters
They walked the air.

Why do you stand they were asked, and
Why do you walk?

Because of the children, they said, and
Because of the heart, and
Because of the bread.
The cause
Is the heart’s beat
And the children born
And the risen bread.
-Daniel Berrigan

I am writing two days after the huge first step of the Egyptian democratic revolution, the driving out of Hosni Mubarak, the man about whom Vice President Joe Biden said, two weeks before his departure, “I would not refer to him as a dictator.”

Fortunately, the masses of the Egyptian people weren’t acting on behalf of the U.S. government, and they found the courage and the tactics to make history. February 11th, 2011 may end up being more important to world history than September 11th, 2001.

I know very little about the ins and outs of the groups which have been organizing for democracy and justice for decades in Egypt. But I do know enough about revolutions to know that without the work of those brave individuals and organizations, those “taken for fools, taken for being taken in,” those jailed, tortured, killed or risking those things, the successful uprising of the millions over the last three weeks would never have happened.

It is clear that in the new political situation with the military in formal control of the government, and with a protracted process taking place over many months to try to deepen the revolution and prevent cooptation or even a counter-revolution by pro-Mubarak elements, both the leaders and the masses will be repeatedly tested.

I fervently hope that this latest “laboratory of revolution” yields more positive results than what we have too often seen in the 20th century after the taking of power—which has not yet happened in Egypt—by the revolutionary forces. Given the positive interplay so far between the organized groups and the masses, there is reason to have hope.

This issue, the relationship between the organized, dedicated political forces working for fundamental change and the broad masses of the oppressed and disenfranchised, is the most decisive issue as far as the long-term success of efforts at social transformation.

There are at least two elements involved, one programmatic and the other process.

The programmatic element has to do with the policies advocated by the organized political forces. A truly democratic revolution, for example, would support an electoral system which was about proportional representation in government and which curtailed the ability of the rich to dominate it (neither of which are the case in the supposedly-democratic USA). It would be about a redistribution of economic resources from the obscene rich to low-income and working class people. It would support land reform, improved health care and education for all and the replacement of pro-Mubarak elements in the judiciary, the government, the police forces and elsewhere. It would consciously reject an approach of changing faces in high places with little of substance happening at the grassroots of society.

The process element has to do with HOW the advocacy for change and eventual implementation of it takes place. Structures and mechanisms need to be put in place that provide for accountability and meaningful input by the people into both the processes of determining the strategy and tactics of the revolution prior to the creation of a genuine popular democracy and the actions by a new government.

This is not a new idea. In both post-revolutionary Russia and Cuba, for example, conscious consideration and actual steps were taken toward this objective. In Russia, after Lenin died and Stalin rose to power, these beginning efforts were smashed. Cuba has had more success and continues to struggle with this issue.

What does all of this mean for those of us who are not in pre-revolutionary or revolutionary situations, who must slog along as best we can to keep the hope of positive social change alive and growing?

First, while we draw inspiration from the heroism and successes thus far in Egypt, we should look for articles, interviews and information that can help us better understand more objectively all that happened that led to the February 11th victory. We should continue to follow and learn from all that will be unfolding in coming weeks and months and provide support to on-going progressive and democratic efforts.

Secondly, the amazing, day-after-day, mass actions in Cairo, Alexandria and elsewhere should strengthen our commitment to the kind of outreach and education among grassroots people that leads to more of them coming forward to become activists and organizers themselves, in a constantly growing and widening circle.

Finally, we need to consider the mix of tactics in Cairo that worked to neutralize the armed forces and eventually forced them to move to push out Mubarak. It was more than mass action in the streets. It was mass action that attempted to be nonviolent, but people were prepared to defend themselves, to defend their right to demonstrate and demand change, to fight with stones against the pro-Mubarak thugs when they attacked. This mass movement could not be called pacifist, but it also could not be called adventuristic or violent. From what I saw, the movement as a whole was open to the possibility and made efforts to try to bring about a generally nonviolent revolution, without being rigidly locked in to that approach.

Power to the people.

Ted Glick has been active in the climate movement since 2004 and a progressive activist and organizer since 1968. Past writings and more information can be found at http://www.tedglick.com.