Sunday, February 26, 2017

Revolutionary Optimism In Salem, Oregon

The Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci famously said, "I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will." It is a saying which only gets old in times when there is a low level of struggle. In moments like the one we're in now, it's easier to feel the passion of optimism.

Many of us are regretting the loss of Ellison's race to lead the Democratic National Committee. We see behind that a lost opportunity for the Democrats and a more difficult path ahead. We wonder if the Democrats want to beat Trump and the reactionaries or find some means of accommodation, and we wonder if we are being used or sacrificed for their gain. It is a moment when we diverge somewhat from our liberal friends who hope for a Clinton or a Carter back in office or who still refuse to analyze what we are left with after eight years of Obama. It is a moment when we are forced to relate to people who have opposed us in the past but who now seem lost, people who become allies because we fear and suffer under some of the same conditions. 

In fact, even at this moment we have reason to be revolutionary optimists. Look around you in Salem. We have a City Council meeting tomorrow which will give us a chance to win an inclusivity resolution and raise the level of political struggle. This comes with a higher level of mobilization among immigrants and people of color here then we have seen since 2006. On Tuesday there is the womens' reproductive health lobby day and rally. That lobby day is so full that the organizers are asking latecomers to plan on attending the rally and contact legislators. On Wednesday there will be an all-important climate justice rally. On Thursday there will a housing rights push in Salem. Next Saturday there will an important pushback in Portland against recent police repression. Many of these events and struggles have women and people of color in the lead, and none are going to succeed without that leadership growing and deepening. And for Oregon this is news. Each event and struggle tests us, but they also test our opposition---and the opposition is failing, not us. Even if we lose a round we are still in the ring.

These events are people in motion, and nothing educates likes being in motion if we are also creating the means to think critically, change course and do better as we organize and mobilize. We are not in a revolutionary period---not yet. For me this means building a working-class and struggle-based cadre which serves the people. That tested cadre can then build an independent revolutionary political party, or parties, which fight for socialism, self-determination, peace, housing and environmental justice. That is revolution. We have people around us who are being transformed, who are transforming themselves. It's easy to see some of them becoming activists, and it's getting easier to see activists turning into revolutionaries. Maybe people in motion and the way forward through cadre- and party-building looks different to you. Let's debate it where and when we differ.

With all of this activism and with maps showing us ways forward we have no right to be cynical or lazy or to hang back. That's the material basis for our optimism.

But what about Gramsci's pessimism? Gramsci's concern when he wrote these words was that the forces necessary for a revolution could not be developed quickly enough to assure good results. This must remain a concern and a demand for us as well. Are we organizing and serving the people? Are we using our position wisely? Can we see a way forward from resistance and disunity to intense struggles for reform, and then to revolution, and then to socialism? Can we bring people along with us? Do we hear the clock counting the seconds as we race against catastrophe?

Gramsci later reversed himself, or did so partially. At a certain point his faith was shaken as he suffered in prison under Mussolini---not a loss of faith in revolution or a faith in people, but a feeling that everything had been tried and had failed, temporarily he hoped. But even at this point Gramsci kept writing in prison and reworking his ideas. He remained a revolutionary.

We know that the odds are against us. That isn't the question. The question is---can we win the people to our side? Will today's activism be a school for revolutionary change or will it be something else?

If we approach these questions soberly we know that we can lose everything. We also know that the struggle for freedom, power and self-determination tests people and often brings out our worst sides. But when I was a kid a coal miner uncle of mine told me, "Look, when you're down in the mine and the roof falls in you always dig towards the light. Maybe the light is just another guy's lamp or a reflection in the water, but you still dig because your life depends on it. You dig, you don't just lie there and wait for rescue." There is a necessary beauty in that which outweighs the risks, doubts and abstractions this society fills our heads and hearts with.

Really, is there a choice here? Isn't the optimism of our will most evident in the people around us who depend on us, even if they don't yet know that they depend upon us? Can we love them enough to depend on them as well?

  Antonio Gramsci


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