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Revolutionary Movements and Leadership

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Too long have the workers of the world waited for some Moses to lead them out of bondage. I would not lead you out if I could; for if you could be lead out, you could be led back again. I would have you make up your minds there is nothing that you cannot do for yourselves.
--Eugene Victor Debs
December 18, 1905


As a writer, I get many responses to my articles across a wide spectrum of ideologies, from all over the world. This is one of the things that make writing interesting to me --engaging people and hearing their ideas about things that matter. Almost invariably people ask me what they can do, or who is going to lead the next great social justice movement. What follows is my response to those inquiries. Bear in mind that it is hastily crafted and intended as a rough outline --a starting point. I will leave it to others more capable than me to build upon the foundation I have laid; or if necessary to start anew.

As the result of our hurried lifestyle, we live in a relatively intellectually shallow culture that has been softened by the idea of instant gratification. When we are sick we take a pill with the expectation that it will quickly make our malady disappear. We rarely consider the underlying causes of illness and disease. Our meals are rarely savored: they are prepared quickly and eaten in haste. Everything we do is predicated upon speed. This, I believe, has led to a kind of intellectual laziness that is prevalent among Americans, more than anywhere else in the world. We want quick fixes, easy answers --instant gratification. We want someone to lead us and tell us what to do, in essence relieving us of the burden of personal responsibility we know is ours.

Let us come to understand, however, that the complex problems facing not only America, but also the world, have no simple or easy solutions. If solutions exist --not all problems can be solved by mortal minds --these issues will require deep thought and long and persistent effort on the part of many. If we are serious about the business of revolution we must not only be committed to meaningful change, we must be in it for the long haul. Unfortunately, change often occurs at glacial speed, not at the velocity of light, as we might hope. Even when change appears to happen very quickly, it only appears that way after a long hard struggle on the part of many to reach critical mass. When critical mass is reached, and we rarely know exactly where we are in relation to it, then things happen quickly and dramatically. But it is a long and difficult process that leads up to critical mass.

It is expecting too much of anyone to lead a revolution. Revolutions succeed only by the force of many, acting in unison toward a common goal, not by the leadership of a few. If they are to succeed, movements must be bigger than the leadership that organizes them. They must be essentially self-organizing. Leaders can be assassinated, movements cannot. Effective national and global movements are the result of the efforts of millions upon millions of individuals united in common belief, and common effort. They are the result of many single acts added together that move the whole toward a common goal. These acts have a cumulative and profound impact when carried out day after day, month after month, year after year. This is when they acquire the force of revolutionary change for the betterment of all.

Centralized power is concentrated power that is prone to corruption and betrayal. Decentralized, loosely organized movements disperse power throughout the entirety of the movement or cause. It places power equally into the hands of all, rather than a few. This is the kind of movement that, it seems to me, is most likely to succeed. It is the kind of movement in which, paradoxically, everyone is a leader, and no one is a leader. This kind of organization is the kind that most troubles authority, the status quo, because they do not know how to attack it. Its leadership is at once everywhere and nowhere. How does one assassinate an entire movement without engaging in genocide?


There are few tried and true methods to follow. Mostly these are uncharted waters where we venture. However, there is one absolute certainty --we must massively organize on a global scale across a broad spectrum of interrelated concerns and issues. There is no other place to start than at the beginning. This means we must start from where we are --at home and in our respective communities. We might begin by creating decentralized but loosely organized networks of local activists, who meet regularly at someone 's home, or a local library, perhaps, to discuss matters of importance to them; who work both individually and in unison on the issues that concern them. Partnerships are formed and alliances made, as we educate ourselves and decide how to solve local problems.

Some members of this group might work on organizing and democratizing the work place; others might address homelessness and affordable housing. Another group might work to put their own people on school boards, or run candidates for county commissioner. Still others might work on preserving wild forests or monitoring the biological health of local streams and rivers. There are any number of issues to choose from. It requires no more than a single person to begin working on them. The work can begin immediately and its impact can be felt at once. Of course, the more people involved the better. The idea is to find common ground and to make connections based upon commonality.

Meanwhile, broader networks begin to branch out from the local network into the surrounding county, then to the state level. From the state level they broaden their scope to the National level. From there the next step is the global level. All of these citizen activists will be in constant communication with each other, coordinating their efforts and broadening membership in the group. The network continuously branches out in concentric circles, building bridges across platforms and ideologies as it proceeds, until it circumnavigates the globe and joins hands with the people of every nation. There is no fast way to accomplish this. It requires time and persistent effort. This is the basis of a sound and enduring foundation.

Thus we now have large numbers of individuals working on specific parts of interrelated issues that produce specific outcomes. Rather than being overwhelmed by the immensity and complexity of the larger problem, they are broken down into manageable parts. Similar groups will form in every community. They will talk to each other, teach each other, share results and coordinate their efforts. The enormity and complexity of issues can be overwhelming and paralyzing. One hardly knows where to begin, so nothing gets down. The pitfall of enormity can be avoided by delegating work and breaking everything down into manageable portions. If there are enough people willing to do the work they may need to be given a rough blue print and a little guidance. There will necessarily be some false starts, but together we will find our way.

Seemingly disparate but interrelated issues such as corporate control, revolutionary unionism, militarism, public funding of political campaigns, proportional representation in government, sweatshops, civil rights, starvation and hunger, disease, safe organically grown food, small family farming --a broad spectrum of issues --are addressed in this way. Clearly, there is no shortage of issues to select from. There is something for everyone. Find something that interests you and get started.

By continuously attacking these individual issues on many levels, we will be making steady progress on the broad front of a massive social justice movement of global dimensions. Thus we must reach out to the people working in other but related movements, who are already working on their own issues and know them best. In effect, we would be uniting the working poor with labor unions at home and in Sri Lanka; democratizing and liberating the work place through revolutionary unionism, taking public ownership of the economy from the corporations and redistributing wealth equitably to those who produce. We would be cleaning our streams and rivers, even as we address global warming. All things are related. Pluck a flower, trouble a star.

We would work in unison with the disempowered and voiceless across every front, in every nation. Together we have a voice. Separate we do not. Those working on civil rights issues would be united with people working on labor issues, because those issues are interconnected. Individual problems will not be fixed in isolation from the whole. A particular problem can be isolated temporarily for the purpose of making it a manageable part, but it must be reassembled within the matrix of the integrated whole if it is to work. For example, women chained to work tables in Chinese sweatshops would be working with the employees of Wal-Mart in the US and Germany to emancipate all parties from wage slavery. The problem must be fixed globally; otherwise, it migrates to regions where there are few environmental regulations, or no protection for workers against corporate tyranny.

Creative and visionary ways must be found to bring groups of people together in common causes that may appear to be unrelated, but which are in fact interrelated. I will leave that to minds more brilliant than my own, but I will participate.

Ours will be a movement that gives voice to the voiceless, wherever they are, whatever they do. Uniting thousands of smaller issues into a great river of revolutionary activism is the only thing that will set us free. Many of these movements already exist --we have only to join forces with them. It is a monumental undertaking that will require relentless effort, self sacrifice, and commitment to the larger common cause. Uniting all of these disparate factions and moving them forward under a social justice umbrella, pushing forward in unison against our oppressors gives us enormous power that is virtually unstoppable. It is a power that can remake civilization by working toward the common good, by looking out for each other. It requires a different way of thinking than the one we are accustomed to. This way of thinking and doing stresses cooperation over competition and exploitation.

The most important principle of the movement is also logistically the most difficult to achieve --to unite and to focus the disparate parts --to make them function as a single organism in the cause of social justice. This means that we must work in accord across party lines, race, sex, socioeconomic class, political ideology, theology and geopolitical boundaries. We will be creating a global Commonwealth that tolerates and celebrates diversity. It will be based upon mutual respect and concern for the welfare of others. The needs of the many outweigh the wants of the few.

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Charles Sullivan is a photographer, social activist and free lance writer residing in the hinterland of West Virgina.

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