Thursday, May 01, 2008

May Day: revolutionary nostalgia

Greetings, friends and comrades! and a happy May Day to you all.

The title of this post is deliberately ambiguous, and seemingly self-contradictory, too, like similar phrases in our Left tradition: "revolutionary defeatism," "revolutionary suicide." It poses, in fact, a dialectical opposition: nostalgia is a neurotic dwelling on and in the past, revolution promises a transformation of human society, indeed a rupture with that past. But past and future are both human constructs. The past, actually several pasts, may contain the seeds of several futures, including the ones that we seek--alternatives to the dreary "end of history," both Fukuyama's and Orwell's, that endless stamping of the corporate boot on the human face forever.

Revolution, however, is not Soviet power plus electrification. Vanguardism is dead: no small body of human beings can possibly contain the vast future histories of humanity. That way madness, corruption and terror lie: power is seized, and the precious scrolls of the future are jealously guarded, on behalf, of course, of "the people": but like the Latin Bible of old, their contents are mediated through a priestly class. Its hieratic messages are doled out in speeches, mandates and orders, enforced by secret police: and the workers come to inhabit, not a space of transformation, but a zone of exception. The sovereign, armed with technology and design, emerges once again from his own ashes.

Karl Marx knew the dangers:

The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language....the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue.

How, then, do we forget our native tongue in periods of crisis, and at once invent, learn and speak a new one? How do we avoid that anxious conjuration of the spirits of the past-- rejecting the transformative, falling back on old patterns of thought and behaviour--at the very moment of our potential triumph? We don't know. And so our demand for alternatives, for an authentic future that people construct with their own hands and minds, can sound too often (let's admit it) like sentimental moralizing.

Perhaps, then, we should talk much less, and learn to inhabit our crazy visions in a different way.
Perhaps we should be guided by our imaginings, letting them inform and help us re-create our actions and our organizing strategies. But to do this we need to be deeply open to them, and to each other. And so today, rather than discussing the revolutionary necessity of shop-floor democracy, accountability, capacity-building and alliances--what, in other words, is to be done (although Lenin himself was rather obscure on that point)--let's listen instead, to our dreams and to the dreams of our comrades, refracted through the music of our living tradition. There's plenty of time tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, for us to put our shoulders to the wheel once again--with a smile, knowing that boundless possibilities are ours.

[Internationale; Hasta siempre; ¡No Pasarán!; Bread and Roses; Einheitsfrontlied; El Quiento Regimento; A las barricadas; El pueblo unido jamás será vencido; Avanti Popolo; Te recuerdo Amanda (Victor Jara); Gracias a la vida (Violeta Parra); The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Gil Scott Heron); The Fifth Internationale (Allen Ginsberg)]

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