“’Tis the final conflict
Let each stand in his place
Shall be the human race.”
These are the concluding lines of the chorus to The Internationale, first written as a poem in 1871 by Eugene Pottier, a worker who had taken part in the Paris Commune. Down through the years there have been modifications of the words, but the basics as written by Pottier have remained.
From out of nowhere, these words came to me over the last several days. It could be because I see a number of concrete reasons to believe that the political tides are turning in the USA. We could well be at the beginnings of an upsurge in year-after-year progressive activism, organizing and unity building—finally—that could lead to a very different country and world going forward.
I see this all throughout the climate movement, in a myriad of ways, the most prominent being the struggle to prevent the Keystone XL pipeline from being built and the widespread, popular movement against fracking. You can see it in the determined and continuing actions of the immigrant rights movement. There is the multi-issue, multi-racial demonstration of many tens of thousands in North Carolina last month organized by the Moral Mondays movement. There is the remarkable spread of legislative and judicial victories for the marriage equality movement. There is the organizing among low-income workers for an increase in the minimum wage, an issue so popular that the Democratic Party is taking it up, at the same time that they are openly taking on the Koch brothers. And, last but by no means least, there is the growing likelihood that US Senator Bernie Sanders is going to mount a serious Presidential campaign, with economic justice and climate being two major issues of that campaign, and with a primary, expressed purpose by Bernie being to help strengthen working and progressive people in our fight for justice, equality, a stable climate and a clean environment.
Is this “the final conflict?” Almost a century and a half ago people who were struggling for survival and justice under much harsher conditions than most of us experience in the USA today believed that their struggle was such a thing, but they were wrong. That conflict between those with great wealth and power and those struggling to survive and improve their living conditions has been going on ever since. Indeed, the divide between the very, very rich and the vast majority of human society has never been greater on a worldwide scale, and definitely in the USA.
And at the same time, because corporate capitalism is the world’s dominant economic system, a system in which the oil and gas industry is a commanding sector, environmental destruction leading to an increasingly acute climate crisis has truly brought us to the brink. We badly need “a final conflict” in which the people, on behalf of ourselves and all other life forms on earth, are victorious over the less-than-1% who mis-rule over us. Time is not on our side; we can’t mess up this developing upsurge.
Why wasn’t it “the final conflict” back then? Why did Eugene Pottier and his sisters and brothers and all who came after them fail? What do we have to do differently today to have a decent chance of winning?
Fortunately, the stones for our slingshots are already all around us. I see three that are most critical:
1) The rise of the women’s and lgbt movements, the simple yet crucial insight that “the personal is political,” that you can’t say you’re for democracy and human rights and then treat individual people shabbily—these movements for gender and human equality and this insight have already had a big impact on the world, and they are continuing to do so. This is critical. Social change organizations and movements in the past often fell apart because of personal struggles for power between male leaders. There is much less of this today, it seems to me, in part because of the cultural changes brought about by these movements..
2) The rise of liberation theology over the last 50 years has led to an increased integration of spiritual perspectives and insights into progressive circles. Morals and ethics are taken more seriously. There’s much more of an expectation that leaders of our movement will practice what they preach/walk their talk, and more a willingness to speak up and criticize those who don’t. This is very important.
3) Finally, and going along with the above-listed cultural changes, there is a much greater appreciation of the importance of democracy and, on a deeper level, horizontalism in the way that we structure our organizations. The rapid spread of the Occupy movement in the fall of 2011, led by young people, is the best recent example of the power of a movement making deliberate and conscious efforts to be inclusive in decision-making processes. The ultimate break-up of the hundreds of local Occupys after months of successful occupation does not fundamentally alter this truth, though constructively critical analysis of all of the factors that led to the receding of this movement is essential, and has been done.
It’s not hard to appreciate why brother Pottier wanted what he was part of in 1871 to be “the final conflict.” I and I know many others want what we are engaged in right now to be the same. Let’s go about our work in such a way, day after day, hour by hour, that the chances are increased that it finally is.