Greg 00:00 [Intro] As Toni Morrison has put it, “the destiny of the 21st century will be shaped by the possibility or collapse of a shareable world.” Welcome to our podcast where we explore the history, theory and practice of democratic socialism with our guide big Mike. What can we learn from the past to help us create a better, more shareable world in the future?
Greg 00:32 Hello everyone. We’re back, back and peppy, even though it’s been a, uh, we’ve had a little bit of a hiatus, although people listening wouldn’t really know that unless we sound older, maybe. Um, and we have a theme for today’s discussion, which is revolution. And I had an idea for a little preamble I was going to surprise you with.
Mike 00:55 Okay, surprise me.
Greg 00:59 ‘Cause we’ve been talking about most recently, the idea of utopia, about imagining different ways of being. And as I was thinking about shifting to revolution—
Mike 01:05 Why, you think a revolution isn’t a utopia? Maybe revolution is a utopia in itself.
Greg 01:12 Oh no, no, of course. Yeah. Um, but where, where we’ve kind of been working in this, uh, somewhat historical frame where we’re looking at actual utopian projects, texts. Um, and so the thing I want to run by you is—it has to do with ancient Greece and the early modern, modern period.
Greg 01:32 So, and I think I may have said this in a previous podcast, but we’re going to repeat it. Um, so Ian Morris, when he lectures on ancient Athens, he frames it as the ancient world is largely being made up of societies where you have godlike kings.
Mike 01:50 Godlike kings.
Greg 01:52 Yes.
Mike 01:54 With the exception of Athens, of course. And, and Sparta.
Greg 01:55 Right. Yes. So he’s trying to frame what’s going, what, why the Greeks are weird, right? And so he says, there’s this, you know, quick sketch of a basic power structure. What’s all top down, and somebody who can communicate with some other realm, that’s where their power comes from. And so the way he has of summing up what these Athenians and Spartans, um, what their project was, is what he calls the Greek question. And the Greek question is what are we going to do, if nobody’s telling us what to do. That they had this self-conscious awareness that it was up to them as a collective to decide the future, to decide their form of organization, et cetera—
Mike 02:42 Which of course is true of a portion of classical—of the antique world, right? That certainly may be true. I think it’s worth thinking about, but that would be true. Yes, of Sparta. But it’s certainly not true, for example, of Macedonia. I mean, you know, if Phillip has an empire and Alexander takes over the empire. So it’s not a, it’s not true throughout the Ancient Hellenic world forever. It may just be the very, very narrow a couple of hundred years, that—in which—was at a pretty small place, too small.
Greg 03:16 Right. In a pretty small place. But that’s his way of framing democracy as an answer to that question that if no one’s telling us—
Mike 03:21 If we really want to continue the utter myth, that Athens was a democracy, which you and I know that it wasn’t.
Greg 03:29 No, no, of course it wasn’t of course, but they, but, but they had their procedure for deciding what to do, had to do with some measure of collective—uh, thoughts, and process—
Mike 03:45 Of a very tiny portion of the population. We, we in the modern world have this myth of, of Athenian democracy as somehow the well-pool out of which our contemporary democracy… and that’s just not true historically. You know, I used to argue, maybe I’ve said this before too on this program, that from the point of view of democracy, apartheid South Africa—from this point of view of democracy—apartheid South Africa could have been defined as one of the most democratic societies in the world. The only problem was that 80 to 90% of the people living in South Africa weren’t part of it. That’s exactly the case with Greece. So we’ve, we’ve constructed an extraordinarily elaborate lineage and myth for democracy that… I just want to make that point. We really got to unpack these myths.
Greg 04:24 Yeah, no, and I totally, I totally concur. Um, the more salient point to my mind though, is the, I think fairly dramatic shift from being in a culture where being in that culture has, is in large measure, prescribed and inset in some view of the universe as a whole, versus an awareness that as human beings, we will decide how culture goes.
Mike 04:54 Let me challenge that. I see where that’s coming from. Let me challenge it slightly. Let me doubt it slightly. I’m not, I don’t know enough about it to challenge anything, but let me doubt it slightly in the following fashion, I could only make a statement as blanket as that, because we really are ignorant of the political history, aside from the history of the monarchs themselves, we don’t know much about the political history of the ancient world. Um, I’m trained originally as a China specialist. And of course, if you look at the long history of China, a lot of which was at the same time as, as Greece and so forth, ancient history, there were records of discontent and revolt. It’s not a matter of simply top down and everybody accepting their place. Quite the contrary. And even in the Confucian classics, the ancient literature of China, there are many indications that the rulers were very sensitive to what the common peasant thought.
Mike 06:05 And they used to sneak around listening to the peasants sing songs. And if there was some kind of unease with a social situation, they had to take measures. So I think that idea that, that you, someone is telling you what to do, um, is what we think is the case of the ancient empires. Perhaps for example, you could say that we like to say that about Egypt or about Babylon or Assyria, and then Greece becomes the exception. Actually, it’s probably not true. There are indications—and friends of mine who tell me this; I haven’t looked into it myself, I want everyone to understand—that there are documents, for example, even in ancient Egypt, which indicate peasants’ discontent with the social system and a shared sense of injustice. So it’s not simply that, but to make a segue to the subject of revolution. The greatest question mark, in that thesis that you put forward, um, would be raised about the Spartacus Rebellion. Here was Rome, the greatest empire in the West of its time.
Mike 07:15 I mean, it was, it was huge and very important, and it was, um, in every way, a top down society, right. And yet you had the slaves rising in revolt. And it, it was, uh, a great shock to everybody. I mean, it really, it really was a huge event, right? So it’s not clear to me that we can, we can make such a statement that the fact that the, that some Greek city-states—and we have to see, we have to think how small they were compared—may have been, may have, may have followed a different path. Um, that may be true. I’m not, but I think I would want to rethink how to phrase it. It’s not clear to me that, that, um, that the Greek question, as you say, is, uh, exactly fits the historical knowledge we have of that period.
Greg 08:14 Well, and it’s, you know, of course, it’s, I think Ian Morris and other historians and archeologists would say, it’s not that it wasn’t—there weren’t, it wasn’t a fraught thing. It’s just seems to me, it’s like a core shift, an expectation about political and social power that either there are, there are these experts in it who hand down things, or we, we recognize collectively we’re going to engage in something together. Cause I, cause I also see that kind of early modern, modern period in the West is as coming to see that it’s our job to figure out how to live, versus even in medieval feudal Europe, where there are these structures that we’re meant to participate in whether we want to or not.
Mike 08:56 Well, yeah. You know, of course then I would agree that that, that, you know, if you read there were Plato and Aristotle about to some extent, is that question about how let’s figure out how we ought to live our lives. Um, I’ve always been struck by the fact that this parallel, for example, between Plato and Confucius, you know, Confucius also has a utopian vision of the world. The world was not the way Confucius wanted it to be, right? And he has this utopian vision, which he works out in the, those books that are ascribed to him in particular. And he goes in search just the way Plato did. He goes in search of a Prince who will create that world. Right? So the idea that the world is as it is, and we just accept it, which is what one is led to believe was the case with the ancient empires in the middle East and the West.
Mike 09:59 And I don’t believe we know enough to say that, but it isn’t the case where in ancient China, um, I think something does happen historically certainly at a certain point, uh, culture, civilization no longer can rely upon a hierarchy of, of, um, how shall I put, of ideas. No, it can no longer say, well, whoever interprets the divine will, whether that divine will be the Christian or the Greek gods or whatever, but whoever interprets the divine will, uh, rules and sets through, sets the order of society. Um, Confucius says something to this effect, uh, “yeah, the gods exist, but let’s perform the rituals. So they stay away happy and we can do whatever we want to do and orders society the way we want it.” Uh, the Chinese were as they are again today, perhaps, um, breaking new paths in this story that we’re telling. But, um, I just, I just find that a little difficult to accept.
Mike 11:10 And as I said, I think the Spartacus Rebellion, which is a major historical event, uh, suggests otherwise.
Greg 11:17 Yeah. Well, I think your plan was to talk about historical events. So where do you want to start?
Mike 11:22 We’re going to talk about revolution today and that’s a very good, good entree to it. It has become—curiously, what you just said, uh, fits the pattern that I was thinking of. It’s become—there’s a strain of thought developing today that the revolutions, the historical revolutions, the great revolutions that marked history, and we’ll discuss what those may have been in the modern world in a moment—um, were not necessary. That left alone—and here, and this is a kind of a pious wish on the part of bourgeois historians—left alone, society would have developed in the direction of bourgeois liberal democracy anyway. So why all the bloodshed of the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution.
Mike 12:16 And in fact, on the, on the, uh, on the anniversary of the Russian Revolution, um, it was just two years ago now, right the Russian Revolution only took place 103 years ago. And the anniversary was in 2017. Uh, several histories of the revolution were written some by very, very famous scholars in the field who said the Revolution really wasn’t necessary. That just, you know, if people had been a little bit more patient or whatever, uh, the amount of bloodshed, et cetera, that was, that was, uh, that occurred would have been unnecessary. And it follows from that, that as in, as in the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror, which was consequent upon the revolution, or in Russia, Stalinism which was, was consequent upon the Russian revolution. It would not have been necessary—you know, the British of course said that at the time of the French Revolution, the British were not very happy that the French were having such a revolution.
Mike 13:16 So I think that that’s the kind of idea that, you know, we, we all have to get around and solve our problems … is somehow related. I, I’d have to think about it much more, but I think it’s part of that general fear that we today have of revolution. And the reason we have that fear today to no small extent is because we ourselves realize, kind of all of a sudden, since around 2008, and afterwards with, with the failure of neo-liberalism, we ourselves are beginning to feel that we’re living on the knife’s edge. You know, the crises we’re facing that we’ve talked about before, from the crisis of the environment, to the crisis of labor, having enough jobs for workers, et cetera, all these crises, none of which can we seem to find yet any really democratic solution to, all of these crises, give us a feeling of unease.
Mike 14:14 And if you open the daily newspaper, almost anytime these, these, these months, there are riots in Latin America or in the Middle East or in Paris, you know, all over the place, people are being—Hong Kong! People are rising up one way or another. Uh, and, and this frightens us and we really want to believe that revolution is unnecessary. If we could only keep the lid on and let things naturally develop, they would—except they haven’t. So that raised to me—and I’m not advocating revolution. Let me say that, although we’ll talk about revolution as itself utopian in a second, but, but that raised in my mind, the question of why are we, how do we arrive at the judgment that revolutions are not necessary? Uh, that revolutions are, are frightening and that they collect a terrible toll in both human lives and material wealth is the case.
Mike 15:24 And we say, well, you know, we, we understand that revolutions—I’ll define what I mean by revolution in a moment—that revolutions often occur because people are discontent because they’re suffering, they’re frustrated. They can find no other way out of their, of their dilemma, of their repression, suppression except to explode, uh, sometimes as a consequence of, uh, machinations on the part of a small party, sometimes just the riot that takes place in the public square, but they do explode. Uh, and we say, well, you know, it’s just too big a price to pay. The trouble is that we compare the price exacted by a revolution with not paying the price when a revolution doesn’t occur. So it’s, as if we’re saying, well, you know, peace would be better than war. Um, a regime of justice, even if it’s only gradual improvement would be better than violent revolution.
Mike 16:28 Part of the problem is the way we define violence. And what we fail to do is pay sufficient attention, particularly in the popular imagination, we, we forget to pay sufficient attention to what is the violence and suffering of social life under the conditions which lead to the revolution. Back in the time of the civil rights movement in the US it was fashionable to talk about institutional racism, that there was a kind of racism built into the way in which our institutions function and into the regulations and into our, into the very structure of our society. As time passed and the, the radical, um, the radical moment began to dissolve. We, uh, we haven’t talked so much about this question of institutional racism or institutional suppression, or, I would argue, institutional violence. And instead we tend to pair off revolution on the one hand with peaceful development on the other hand.
Mike 17:31 And I want to argue that that quite the opposite is the case. We need to think about revolution in counter, in comparison to violence and suffering that gives rise to the revolution. So in that light, uh, when I look at the Spartacus Rebellion, at slave revolts, um, it’s very obvious that, that the suffering of the slaves that led them to revolt, uh, for them, a revolution, violence, killing their masters or whatever, was a kind of compensation for and a kind of way out of the intense violence they were experiencing in their daily lives as slaves.
Greg 18:14 Do you want to set up the Spartacus Rebellion? If somebody hasn’t heard of Spartacus—
Mike 18:19 Spartacus was a slave revolt in ancient Rome, and it spreads all through what, you know, through most of Italy, disrupted normal life. It was put down with a, with a, a great, uh, a great deal of economic and military force, right? And it resulted in social changes and all kinds of stuff going on. And it is legendary precisely because of… it was, it loomed so large in the iconography of, of the left, of revolution, um, which leads into putting on, on the agenda. Another interesting question, and that is why don’t revolutions occur when the conditions are right for them. So that one looks at, for example, let’s say the slaveocracy in America, between the period of the revolution and the Civil War, um… there was no great slave revolt in America, uh, in comparison to say the slave revolt in Ancient Rome. So—in contrast, by the way, in contrast to what happened in Haiti at the end of the very end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century, where the slaves rose in revolt, in a, in a, in a massive, uh, violence, throughout the French—the leader of the slave rule declared himself emperor, right?
Mike 19:45 And, and, and in fact, Haiti became a fascinating social experiment for a few years there, uh, in which the slaves took over and created their own society. Eventually it falls apart, but, and today we have quite a different situation, but one should start asking why revolutions don’t take place when the conditions suggest they ought to. And that will give us some clue as to the control mechanisms that, that authoritarian societies, um, uh, use to keep their populations under check. Right now in the United States, for example, uh, one of the interesting questions we need to ask is why in the face of such opposition to the current regime, we don’t have more demonstrations. What, what is, what is the nature of our society that after the, the demonstrations the day after Trump’s inauguration and, uh, one or two more of the Women’s March and the, and Occupy Wall Street, things of that—there’s been no mass expression.
Mike 20:52 It’s not that we don’t have the public squares, and it’s not that we can’t, all of us get someplace quickly enough to, right, but there’s no spontaneous demonstration. Why? That’s the lens through which to look at society from a slightly different perspective than we normally look at it. So I think that’s a very important, very important question to ask. And I want to add one more thing before we start looking at something like a typology of revolutions. There are some political theories that argue that a revolution needs to take place every so often in order to renew society, in order to get rid of the dead wood, get rid of the dead wood, not necessarily the dead wood in terms of human beings, but to clear the air, to make it possible for something new to develop. In, in traditional Chinese political theory, uh, there was something called the right of rebellion that when the, when the emperor began to behave in such a way that it was oppressive to the people, um, the, it was said that the people that the emperor would lose what was called the mandate of heaven. The Chinese emperor throughout, throughout, you know, 2000 years of history ruled by virtue of possessing the mandate of heaven—heaven kind of, um, featureless power in the world, right?
Mike 22:24 It would give the emperor the right to rule. And the emperor in China had two titles. This is something I do know a little bit about. The emperor in China had two titles. One of the titles was referred to his role as the apex of human society, the King, but the other title, which we translate as Son of Heaven meant that he was a particle of heaven that connected Heaven and Earth. And in that category, he had to perform certain rituals to keep the universe going. He would plow a sacred furrow on a certain day, he would perform certain religious rituals that would keep the gods away. So they wouldn’t interfere in daily life, uh, very different from the Christian idea of God coming into the world and actually—right? So, um, but by virtue of this, he could lose the mandate of heaven and the people had a right to revolt.
Mike 23:22 That’s written down as sort of part of the philosophy, um… Thomas Jefferson speaks about this, that the, that you need every so often we should have a revolution and he didn’t make a great thing about it, but he remarks on his, that revolutions, even the American revolution is a very different thing. That revolutions are good to clear the air. You need to meet them. And Chairman Mao says this, Chairman Mao understood that a revolution was necessary every so often in order to renew the social contract. That’s one way of putting it or whatever arrangements in society to clear the air, to, uh, to, to make room for the development of new institutions, the cultural revolution, which ends up to be a disaster for political reasons. Um, ideologically, intellectually, philosophically, it starts out with the assumption that people have a right to revolt. The party must make people revolt if necessary, even against the party, because the party would itself become an entrenched bureaucracy. And we hadn’t, that then would stultify development, right? So I think that revolution is a much more interesting and complex phenomenon than the image of violence alone, um, would suggest. Now we use the word revolution in a vast variety of ways, the toothpaste revolution, right? I mean, I got a new toothpaste it’s a revolutionary toothpaste.
Mike 24:59 I put a little cinnamon instead of orange flavor—revolutionary! Um, Bernie Sanders talks about revolution. Peter Thiel talks about revolution. Um, what people are, what, what revolution needs to be understood as, is a process of disruption and Peter Thiel curiously understands this better than many. It is a process of disruption, um, that disruption may last a week or a day, or it may last much longer. For example, we talk about the industrial revolution, which is a good way to use the word, because industrialization, the beginnings of the industrial process, really did thoroughly disrupt Western civilization and turned it into something that it wasn’t, into something new. And so what revolution has to be understood as is disruption. And disruption with the purpose—and I’m leaving aside the human cost; I really do understand that, but I’m trying to think like a visitor from Mars, what are these people doing when they run around doing a revolution—is that they are trying—the Russian analysts understood this curiously enough.
Mike 26:18 It has a way of clearing social space, institutional space, psychological space, intellectual space in order for something to be born anew. So for example—and that’s revolution, revolving coming back to something new. I have to weed my garden in order for the flowers to grow in the spring. A revolution is a kind of weeding of the socioeconomic, political garden of, of, of, of, of, of human society. Uh, and I’m not saying that in a cold way. I’m not—again, I’m not saying that in any way to promote revolution, I’m just trying to understand why revolution is so important. And indeed why often it goes awry and ends up much worse than it started. I understand that as well. And having said all of that, it’s also worthwhile to thought, to think for a moment about typology of revolutions. And there’ve been a lot of, a lot of books written about this, but I think the, for Americans in particular, this is a very important problem because we speak about the American revolution, right?
Mike 27:35 We’ve just been through two, two… right now. We just, it’s not yet over, the impeachment of Donald Trump. Um, and if you listened carefully and I’m, I’ve been obsessed with it, and it listened to every moment of it, uh, if you listen carefully, there’s all this reference to the founders and to, to the resolution, which was of the American revolution, but the American revolution was not the same thing. Although we like to call it a revolution, it was not the same thing as the three great historical revolutions of, of the modern age, namely the, the Russia—the French, the Russian and the Chinese. The American Revolution was a much more narrowly defined political revolution. Um, it was a throwing out of a colonial power—which is one way of thinking about it—without any immediate consequences. And by that, I mean, there was no great social upheaval in the colonies at the time.
Mike 28:37 We got rid of the British colonizers, we got rid of the rid of the, of the imperialist, but there was no great economic and social change. It, I don’t know what Americanists are saying nowadays, but when I was growing up, it was not uncommon to talk about the, the, the, the economic revolution, the breaking away of the colonies from Britain to be the War of 1812 with the political revolution, it was the so called American Revolution. The economic revolt was the War of 1812, and then the socioeconomic revolution, the revolution that really is closer to the French, Russian and Chinese revolutions, a revolution involving a change in the power structure of the classes of society, uh, that was the Civil War and the Civil War was revolutionary much more in the light of the Russian and French and Chinese Revolutions than any of the other revolutions in America, but we use the word and therefore we’re kind of, in my opinion, muddying the waters.
Mike 29:45 And indeed the civil war assumes in my mind a much greater importance than a high school history. for example, gives it. I’m conscious of high school history. I read the textbooks that my grandchildren study, uh, much greater importance, precisely because it did push the United States in a radical direction. It meant the, there was the bourgeois revolution. It brought to real power, the Northeastern bourgeoisie, and it, it, uh, removed from essential power, the agricultural magnates of, of plantation economy in the South. Yeah. So that really was a, a serious revolution in that sense. So if we keep that in mind and then look at the, at the, at the great historical revolutions of our age, we see them a little bit differently. In my opinion, the French Revolution is the classic modern revolution. Um, almost. Most modern revolutions refer back to it in one way or another, the ideals of the French Revolution.
Mike 30:59 Um, it’s not uncommon to say that the, the, the, you know, the slogan of the French revolution, equality—Liberty, equality, fraternity are the great liberal values. The French revolution represents the intellectual beginnings of the victory of liberalism on the political stage. It brings to power, uh, or potentially brings to power a class that had been excluded from power, uh, before the French revolution. So it resulted in profound social change. Um, it, uh, it, it transferred political power from the countryside. We mustn’t forget the Versailles, the palace where the King lived, and which was the center of the French Monarchy is outside of Paris in the countryside. And transferred for it to where the social and political power really was, which is the city, Paris itself. Yeah. Uh, so the French Revolution is that violent change, albeit, uh, devolves into something else.
Mike 32:03 And we’ll talk about that in a moment. I would add one more point that there is an, there is a kind of a, not a hiccup, but a, a, a continuation of the French Revolution, if you will, which is part of the total story, but we tend not to think of it as a continuity. And that’s the Paris commune of 1870. If you take together the French revolution and the Paris commune, you get a model of social change and a kind of utopian, failed utopian model of a collectivity, of a new kind of collectivity, which together have, have become the symbols, which even the Chinese Revolution referred to.
Greg 32:49 Could you say a little bit about the Paris commune?
Mike 33:00 Well, in the, in the, uh the third Republic, this comes out of the revolution, the bourgeoisie finally really totally seizes power in the course of the 19th century, it’s—the opening comes with the Revolution itself. Um, but the bourgeoisie finally really comes to power and we see this in the literature and the French, and French literature. You look at Balzac, for example, writing in the 1820s, 1830s, who is writing about bourgeois life. Now, now the bourgeoisie is that society and the French and the French polity, whether it was a form of, uh, of a restored kingdom, uh, Napoleon III, or, uh, Louis the whatever, 18th, uh, or a form of a Republic, whatever. And it’s not quite settled its political personality in this interim period, um, is, is, uh, is experimenting with—the bourgeoisie is experimenting with political forms. At the same time Germany, which is a conduit of small peninsular states dominated by Prussia.
Mike 34:04 Uh, and here we’ll come back to the French Revolution in a moment—dominated by the, by the Prussian kingdom, uh, is beginning to coalesce. Germany is looking for a way—all over Europe, you know, Italy unifies in 1860s, et cetera. And the Germans are looking for a way to, to, um, begin to come together. Half of the palm of all these little kingdoms and whatnot can compete on the world market with British imperialism and the beginning of the French imperialism, uh, Germany really does lose out in the world scramble for colonies because it isn’t United. Along comes Bismarck and Bismarck is able to bring everything together to, to displace the independence of the, the, especially the economic independence of all of these little German principalities and kingdoms and bring them all within the power penumbra of Prussia itself, which is, was grows larger and larger, but he needs a, a moment to do it. He needs some kind of, of, uh, instance with which to unify all these people, to bring them together in a common cause. And France provides that, right? I mean, the French are, are kind of sitting there waiting for… So, so the Germans attacked, the Franco-Prussian war, the Germans attack France, and, um, and Bismarck is using that as a way of
Mike 35:35 Of unifying Germany… And France being France—and that’s not, we won’t go into this— but France just collapses. The French government just collapses. And Paris is left essentially without a, without a polity, without a state. And you get developing in Paris, this remarkable collective action, you get women coming in and beginning to participate in the defensive Paris throughout the day. They want to defend Paris against the oncoming Germans. They’ve got to organize the distribution of food. The government simply has collapsed, and this is not like in the Second World War, let’s say, where the Germans conquer and come in and quickly replace the retreating French government. This is a social, economic, political collapse collapse of the French government in Paris. The Germans haven’t quite gotten there yet, and the Parisians have to fend for themselves and they fend for themselves by organizing a commune. Uh, it’s a, it’s a momentary gasp of equality and fraternity in the, in the classic revolutionary French sense of the term.
Mike 36:43 And it glows out like, uh, like, uh, in my, my imagination, like a jewel in the field of history, as a remarkable event. And Marx, Marx saw it that way. It fails. And of course the question of why it fails is a very, very important question, which we still need to, to think about. The, the commune in Paris becomes consciously, a model for—modeling Canton in China in the twenties was when, when, again, there’s a collapse of, of political and economic power in the city of Canton. And they organized the commune also in Shanghai, it’s, it’s, uh, a fascinating model. Uh, it may well be that modern society today, technologically is—fills spaces with forms of communication that we no longer face the possibility of a total collapse. Um, but in those days, those technical, the technical structures didn’t exist. And there was this, uh, this, uh, desire.
Mike 37:50 People had this desire to work together to help each other. It’s really quite an epic story in my opinion.
Greg 38:00 Yeah. Lasted a, year or… few months?
Mike 38:04 Few months. So it’s an epic story. So I think the French revolution begins with the French revolution, but it ends with the, with the Paris commune. And there’s a, uh, kind of, uh, kind of story between these two, which, which has, not in the US but in, certainly in Europe and in other parts of the world, held out a great deal of, um, of hope for social and economic restructuring, and social change. The American revolution as a political revolution, as an anti-colonial revolution became a model for another kind of revolution, particularly after World War II, uh, when, when the, when the various colonies—with one really major exception that was—all measured revolt against their colonial amount of the masses.
Mike 38:49 The, with the defeat of imperialism after World War II, remember that when world war two ends, there was an assumption that the empires that existed before the war would reassert themselves, except of course for Japan, because Japan was defeated. And I think they, everybody knew they would withdraw from their empire. Uh, but the, uh, the British certainly thought they were going to return to India, where they never left India, but they would be able to stay in India. Uh, the French certainly were going to come back, in fact the Americans helped them come back to, to South, to, to Indochina, to French—major part of the French empire, Indochina. And, and, uh, and of course North Africa stayed part of the French polity. Um, and, um, the Dutch were coming back to Indonesia and take over. The period from 1945 to about 1950, when India declared its independence from, from England, there’s the Vietnam War.
Mike 39:53 The first Vietnam War really gets going and ends with French defeat in 1953 at Dien Bien Phu, which is a kind of a prelude to the American Vietnam war, the defeat of the Dutch and their withdrawal from what used to be called the Dutch East Indies, uh, American withdrawal, which had been promised before the war, but it takes place in 1946 from the Philippines. These are all political changes. They bring a new group of people to power, but not always sometimes yes, but not always was there social and economic change at the base of society. One of the exceptions to that was of course, Indonesia, where Suharto—Sukarno, who is the leader of the anti-industrial revolt moves further and further to the left until eventually there’s a revolt against him in the mid 1950s. And he’s thrown out to a terrible human cost. Um, North Vietnam is opposed to the other parts of the, of Indochina, which is where the communist takeover and that results in tremendous social change.
Mike 41:00 But by and large, these were political revolutions and looked at the United States as the model, because the United States was a model of a political revolution. Right. Whereas the Russian Revolution before that, the French Revolution appealed more to other places where—as a model—where, uh, profound, social and economic institutional change was really required from the very beginning. It’s interesting. For example, that in China, even in the period before the, in the twenties and thirties, uh, lots of Chinese children were given Russian names after the Russian writer, because their parents were poor parents who had heard, you know, Sophie—Sophia, right, right. Ivan, or whatever. There was a kind of romanticism about, “the Russians had stood up. We can stand up too.” In fact Chairman Mao at one point says, China has stood up. So the, these revolutions become models of, of, uh, 20th century political behavior.
Greg 42:03 Right. Uh, well, I, I’ve been collecting a little list of, uh, of things to ask you just by association, but are there more—okay. Um, well, it’s just, I’ve been, it’s been crossing my mind some contemporary movements. And so to come back to this general defining of revolution, if you comment on these, as it relates to how we think about revolution, but for example, um, Black Lives Matter as actual protest in the streets in order to disrupt something.
Mike 42:34 Yeah. You’re raising a very important point. And one which we will explore also again, but let me, let me say something about that. One of the really interesting developments as a result—and I’ve referred to this before. I think one of the interesting developments that came out of the cold war that, that occurs as part of the cold war and from which we are still very strongly, by which we are still extremely strongly influenced, is the way in which various phenomena have been used to mute if not erase, um, the appeal of Marxism or of socialism. One has to remember that the cold war was not simply a military standoff, that particularly in the early years, it really was understood as an ideological standoff. We talked about two world systems in those days. I recall that when I was a graduate student, um, the idea that there was going to be a convergence between the American system and the Soviet system was very much in the air, very important political scientists would write about it, and predict it. For reasons which we’ll come to much, much, much later the socialist model that was the Soviet Union collapses instead of converging with the US, if there has been any convergence, there may more have been with China than with the US than with the Soviet Union, but in any of them, our social science has shifted to other objects than those, which they had attended to before the cold war.
Mike 44:31 Right? So that the study, for example, of classes and of class conflict, which was very much part of social science in the thirties, and even in the forties, it sounded too much like socialism, social class conflict, social conflict, and our social sciences in the course of the cold war shift away to define social groups that compete with each other in terms other than class, in order to avoid any echo of the other side: of socialism, the appeals of Marxism, or even a democratic socialism. So out of this comes such concepts as interest groups, right? Um, we used to speak instead of, instead of classes, in the Marxist sense, we started talking about, um, income strata, words like that. Now that has morphed into identity politics, identity groups. So social class is replaced by race. What we call race, even though many of us think that the, the term race is not a very profound term, nonetheless, it has social significance, but it certainly hasn’t got very much significance biologically, right?
Mike 45:51 So that we, we today talk about, about these interest groups. The blacks are in interest groups, the fact that a large part of what Marx would have called the lumpen proletariat was made up of blacks. Many of whom stream out of the South to the factories of the, what is now the Rust Belt during the 1940s, particularly even for the war during the war to take jobs that others right, that were made free because people were going to the army. Um, we don’t talk about them as the lumpen proletariat. We don’t talk about them. We talk about their race or religious groups. What have you. So yes, there are these groups, but what is interesting about them in my mind is of course, as I said, how they replace more classical social, and how they mask the social conflict by replacing race conflict for social conflict.
Mike 46:46 But in addition to that, um, it’s, it’s the demand for equality becomes the dominant idea. Uh, let me see if I can say this more clearly. One of the striking things about Martin Luther King Jr. who was himself a socialist, although that gets lost in the, in the struggle for racial equality, he understood that that was just the first step. It’s very clear in his writings and his speeches that he, that he himself is very left. And perhaps that’s one reason people were so afraid of him, right. Uh, but the civil rights movement took over from the social movement that was the class struggle or the demand for a restructuring of our society. The whole thrust of our policy in this area, therefore, is how to bring the disadvantaged group—in this case, say, the blacks, how to bring them up into the middle class, we’re going to do it through education.
Mike 47:55 Somehow we’ve lost sight of the fact that where they are as a society is not because they don’t have education, but because of their social-political relationships with another class, which is more powerful than they. So I do think that we have problems in this regard, but we should understand them—from my perspective, we should understand them as indicative of a broader perception problem. Which, which has its roots in the training of social sciences with which we study these issues.
Greg 48:26 Yeah. So even though there’s the discrete problem of, of police violence, the bigger picture is the—
Mike 48:36 One of the most interesting things about police violence. Now this is, this is really something we, the people should dwell on, the same social class that is being violated is being violated by people who belong to the same social class. The police come from a social class, not different from the blacks whom they’re violating. What does that tell us? Right. It is the case in, for example, the history of the American labor movement that among the most racist elements of our, in our society, were the labor unions, they didn’t want black workers. They didn’t want these people coming in, competing with union for union jobs. So it’s not, it’s no great surprise that the police are, beat up on blacks. It’s a, it’s a, it’s a, it’s an iteration of the relationship between black workers and white workers, right in the 1930s, for example.
Greg 49:36 Yeah. And didn’t you tell me, not too long ago in South Africa, a case of shutting down, uh, there were some miners who were protesting
Mike 49:45 Just recently, last year. Exactly.
Greg 49:49 And then they get shut down by their fellow classmen.
Mike 49:52 That’s right. Yeah. Yeah. So this is, this is very, uh, it’s to me it’s very significant.
Greg 49:57 Well, so another one I was going to bring up, which is—
Mike 50:01 Let me just finish with one more point here. What distinguishes then the white policemen from the black person being violated, or the black policeman who’s joining the white police force. Right. Because not too often, not, not too rarely, the violence is committed by black officers… is a question of power relationships. Those power relationships are defined socially, not racially. You would expect that the black policeman would take the side of the black person in the street, but they don’t. Yeah. Because they’re power…so they’re defining themselves socially, economically much more in a classic sense. Right. Than all black lives together matter.
Greg 50:50 Yeah. Yeah. Although just to circle back to the very beginning, it seems like you would also say that those points that we started with of, um, making a visible and on the streets, um, resistance to a situation that is creating a lot of suffering in order to try to bring them about less suffering, even though there’s suffering that, that Black Lives Matter kind of fits that, that shape. Yeah. Uh, well, the other one that came to mind, I’m sure you have thoughts about, and is more overtly about class or at least about money is Occupy Wall Street.
Mike 51:26 Occupy Wall Street was an ex—very, very strange phenomenon. Um, it was a flash in the sky, a comet, then dies and disappears. Um, we haven’t talked about anarchism. We should put that on the agenda to talk about it at a certain point. It was a kind of, unfortunately too self-conscious anarchic moment. Um, people simply gathered—thanks no doubt to social media. That’s a new factor of technology, which needs to be considered. People gathered. And, uh, it was, I have to say that I feel it was almost the last gasp of popular political participation, uh, outside of the established institutions and rituals. Um, it didn’t get anywhere in spite of the fact that a lot of people including myself were very sympathetic to it. It didn’t get anywhere because it was run anarchically. Everybody could speak, there was no organization.
Mike 52:35 Uh, ultimately these revolutions depend upon some kind of organization. We’ll talk about that. When we talk more specifically about individual revolutions in the future. But, um, there was no organization, that microphone was passed around, that people stayed as long as their interest was there. And eventually it dies out, right? Nothing came of it, nothing, no lasting consequences. That’s not the only one in modern in our contemporary world. There’ve been other, there was the great, uh, you know, social organizations meeting in Brazil a few years back. Um, but they dissipate. And one of the reasons they do dissipate is because we have a romantic view that was comes out of anarchism and romantic view that left to their own, people will do the right thing collectively. And we forget that people exist in society by virtue of institutions and, those institutions bring order to our political behavior. Without institutions, we can’t behave politically. Occupy Wall Street didn’t develop any institutions that could direct, guide, develop an agenda. Right? Yeah. It was protest without any consequence. Right.
Greg 53:54 Well, the last, I mean, we’re getting towards the end of our usual amount of time, but the last thing I had, and you’ve just mentioned social media that earlier you’d said that, you know, why, why isn’t there more in the street protests these days and is, it seems like one big factor is as people spend their energy on social media, on social media—
Mike 54:14 I think it’s not only that they spend their energy on it, but that the social media, unlike the, unlike the party line of our new, uh, social media companies, um, the social media, may be very good for collecting small amounts of money to support our candidate. They don’t really build community. In fact, um, my youngest grandson spends a lot of time playing games with friends on the internet. I, I watch it carefully so that he stays out of trouble. But the interesting thing is that he really doesn’t know where they are. Their entire relationship is based upon the internet. Right? He’s isolated. And when he’s not on the internet, he plays a game by himself or talks to me, but he’s not connected with a group. Yeah. Right now, that’s it, you know, we like to think it’s the opposite and we claim it’s the opposite, but I think a good case can be made for the fact that social, the social media have become more and more an alienating rather than a collectivizing element in our society. And we’ll pay for that alienation.
Greg 55:35 Yeah. All right. I think that’s plenty—
Mike 55:40 In fact, there’s another very nice example of this is when in 2011. The quote “Arab Spring” end quote, in Tahrir Square in Cairo. Again, it dissipated, right. Institutions came, the military disintegrated it very quickly. It—people communicate, let’s all get together and talk with square, but that doesn’t create the kind of collective consciousness, will to create ongoing institutions. That’s the problem. Right.
Greg 56:17 All right. Thanks big Mike, uh, see you all next time. Thanks for listening to another episode of A Shareable World. To find out more about this podcast, visit us at ashareableworld.com.