When it comes to fundamental, revolutionary change, I’ve learned from history and personal experience that there are a number of necessary ingredients. One is conscious political organization motivated by principles and a genuine desire and plan for improving the lives of the disenfranchised and downtrodden. But this alone won’t bring about change.
As a once-great revolutionary once said, “the masses make history.” It is only when large numbers of people, in our case in the U.S. tens of millions of people, identify with a movement for fundamental change and support it, verbally or actively, that we have any hope of transforming this society.
The trick is to combine the two in a way which doesn’t undercut either, which avoids the temptation to be so committed to being principled that one becomes purist and narrow, on the one hand, or to be so committed to being with and interacting with “the masses” that questionable positions are taken and political relationships are built that end up deflecting one’s energies into reformist and dead-end activism.
Purism versus pragmatism—the twin dangers of serious efforts to bring about revolutionary change.
What can be done to lessen these dangers, to increase the possibilities that more of us will keep our eyes, minds and hearts on the prize?
One is the building of independent and progressive organizations that are truly democratic in the fullest sense of the term. As difficult as the process of democracy sometimes is, it is also a way to keep the group as a whole and the individuals within it centered on the stated objectives. Democratic process, sooner or later, frustrates individual power plays on the part of any person in leadership who lets power go to his or her head and who becomes too purist or pragmatic as a result.
Another is an explicit commitment to the testing out of theories and ideas in practice and a process of constant evaluation based upon input from the people the ideas are being tried out on. If an independent candidate is running for office, for example, and has what seems like a great platform but gets very few votes, perhaps the problem is that the issues being addressed are just not the issues that the potential voters are most concerned about. Since just about any issue can be addressed from a progressive standpoint, a better approach would be to identify what those issues are and, next time, speak primarily to them.
The same with forms of direct action. It may feel good and righteous to physically confront the police as they are protecting one or another member or group of the ruling elite, but if that confrontation is done in a way which makes it easier for the government and the corporate-dominated press to call us violent, that will not generate sympathy for our cause among the wider public. Expressing our sense of urgency and anger is a good thing, if done wisely. Expressing it without political consideration of its impacts is not a good thing.
We need to have a conscious orientation toward undertaking our actions with “the least of these” in mind, those who are hungry, homeless, jobless, underpaid, in prison. Is what we are doing part of a conscious process that will lead to their lives being improved? If not, we may be deluding ourselves when we receive positive input from some who might not be rich but whose lives are relatively secure. Working among the masses, for example, for a limited reform that will have little impact upon the lives of “the least of these,” or do little to develop the political and social consciousness of those being worked with, is not the kind of activism urgently needed today.
Ultimately, one’s ability to navigate between the dangers of purism and pragmatism comes down to how one lives his or her life. Do we live in such a way that, on a day to day basis, we are in touch with working class people, regular folks, those in need of change? Do those of us who are white ensure that, in some way, we have regular communication and interaction with people of color so that we are constantly reminded about racism and its pernicious effects? Do we make time for prayer, meditation or time alone to allow our conscience to make itself heard over the daily demands on our time and energies? Do we interact with others in a way which prioritizes listening and objective consideration? Do we struggle to keep from responding defensively when other make criticisms of us?
As the prophet Micah said, we must “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly” as we move through our time on earth, putting our heads together with like-minded others “to see what kind of life we can make for our children,” in the words of Sitting Bull. We must hold fast to the vision of a new world and make it as visible as possible in our lives for others to see and learn from.