What is revolution in our time? It is using all means at hand to move toward greater democracy, increased equality, and more social justice. It is using people power to effect change in one way or another.
Every once and a while the earth shakes a little, a slight tremble, not an earthquake. Far from the tremors few take notice, but those on the ground know the world will not be the same. That shaking is actually what makes the world go around; it is a revolution in the original sense of the word’s meaning: a turning.
When ordinary people come out into the streets in large numbers, they become historical actors, usurping the usual power embedded in sanctioned leaders, elected, self-appointed, or endowed by tradition. Human agency descends from on high to down below.
In the summer and fall of 2020, we have been living in such a moment of people power. Students, the poor, migrants and minorities, colonized populations, and those living under occupation or dictatorships – in Sudan, Thailand, Mali, Belarus, Hong Kong, Palestine, the United States, in the cities of Khabarovsk and Kenosha – have marched in the streets, protested, and demonstrated, most of the time for greater democracy, more responsiveness from their government, and an end to authoritarianism. This is as close as we are likely to come to revolution. In the twenty-first century revolution does not, cannot, have the same meaning that it had in the last century and the one before that. In 1776, 1789, and 1917, governments were far more fragile, and states far weaker, than they are today. Those in power have far more lethal tools in their hands – tanks, armored personnel carriers, airplanes and rockets –to keep the people in their place. And they are prepared to use their weapons despite the human costs. So, how can ordinary men and women, particularly in non-democratic states, change their lives and liberate their countries in the face of such overwhelming might and the callous willingness to use violence to maintain the inequitable hierarchy of property, power, and privilege?
There are three methods that have been used by the powerless in attempts to effect change. The most drastic is to “go to the mountains,” to launch a revolutionary movement against the government. That has been the way out in Cuba, Columbia and much of Latin America, in the Middle East, the Philippines, and in many formerly colonized states in Africa and Asia. Such movements require the rough terrain, mountains, jungles or deserts, to which guerillas can retreat and in which they can hide. Such movements cost lives and go on for years, often with little success. They require extraordinary commitment and sacrifice, more than most people are capable of. But in authoritarian and repressive states, there may be no alternative to active revolutionary resistance.
A second method is at the opposite extreme and works only in democratic states: organizing legal opposition on the streets and at the ballot boxes, open protests and demonstrations, using the free press to articulate alternatives to the status quo. Such movements are currently visible in the United States, and the response of the state has been vicious in many places. Yet in a country where the rule of law still prevails for the most part, and elections are still held relatively fairly, such a practice of democratic politics has a great chance at success. There is always the danger of a backlash, of a reaction by those who support the status quo and benefit from the inequities and injustices of the system as it is, or who believe the false depictions of the movement propagated by mendacious politicians, including the president. But in democracies there is always an opportunity for peaceful change. That indeed is the definition of democracy: states where the opposition can come to power legitimately and peacefully, and those who lose in this round know they can succeed in the next. Americans and the rest of the world will have to wait until November of this year to see if the people in the streets in 2020 have been successful.
The third method emphasizes the power of the powerless and is a particularly difficult and subtle one, a method of slow erosion of the supports of an undemocratic system. As a historian of the Soviet Union, I was impressed by how persecuted dissidents in an authoritarian state managed for decades to chip away at the prevailing ideological foundations of the Soviet system; how the ruling elite began over time to doubt its own legitimacy and potency to continue to rule; and how the erosion of belief and confidence ultimately opened the way for the elite (in that case, Mikhail Gorbachev) to start reforms to change the system. In the Soviet case reform, combined with economic breakdown, led to revolutionary change that destroyed not only the Soviet system but led to the collapse and disintegration of the Soviet Union as a country. Not surprisingly, other Communist states like China learned from the Soviet experience to restrict dissent and to carry out economic but not democratic reforms under the firm control of the single ruling party.
This third method, like the first two, requires brave committed people who are ready to work under difficult conditions for meaningful democratic change. It requires intellectuals, journalists, and educators to do their jobs with courage and integrity, to teach what is true even when it contradicts the unquestioned assumptions of most people and the falsehoods of the government. It requires civil servants, judges, and the police to realize that they serve the people, not a repressive and incompetent government. If there are chances to use media to get the democratic message out, they must be used. If there are elections, even unfair ones, as in Belarus, such opportunities must be utilized, and demands for honest elections must continually be raised.
What is revolution in our time? It is using all means at hand to move toward greater democracy, increased equality, and more social justice. It is using people power to effect change in one way or another. And it is the brave attempt to try to live honestly, with dignity and respect for others. That may sound banal or trite. But it is not. In our times living with integrity has required taking risks, that is, a kind of heroism.