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Revolution in America?

In response to:

Revolution in America? from the January 30, 1969 issue

To the Editors:

Although on the whole I agree with Barrington Moore’s views on revolution in America, there are other possible approaches which he has not examined sufficiently. His final conclusion seems to be that the best we can really hope for is a continuation of liberal reform and further progress toward social democracy, but at the same time he seems to wish that it were otherwise. I feel that it can be, for these reasons:

The humanistic element in revolutionary philosophy is what is at stake here; if this element can be put into practice, then where and for whom it is put into practice, revolution has occurred. If it can be put into practice on a sufficient scale, then it becomes a significant element in the pluralist state such as it is, and thus an influence on policy and opinion through the usual methods of liberal democracy. The humanistic aspect of revolution consists of only a few essential things:

Direct, meaningful control by relatively small groups of men over the most important concerns of their lives: their arrangements among themselves in economic activity; control of essential social services—education, care of the aged, etc.; and the elimination of social stratification based upon bureaucratic hierarchy, differential control of wealth, or upon anything else.

There are various possibilities for the achievement of at least some of these things. But, as Moore points out, a direct and total reconstruction of the social order through revolution is impossible. However, he depreciates the only other significant possibility: the achievement of these humanistic goals piecemeal from the ground up. Granted, this is hardly the Marxist approach; and it was specifically condemned as utopian; and it doesn’t give one the satisfaction of smashing things up.

But, the establishment of various types of co-operatives based on various principles of organization is actually possible, which to me seems a virtue. Why should such possibilities not be more fully explored?

Co-operatives in particular seem to be a point for departure. Joint ownership of and employment in businesses can be, and has been, a reality. To achieve revolutionary ideals any movement in such a direction must be ambitious and it must be diverse, if only to cope with the diversity of urban life. But why should not co-operative activity include ownership of all kinds of economic enterprises; the running of schools; humane provision for the aged; ownership of housing; facilities for community life; experimentation in management and participatory democracy; the establishment of credit facilities available to new ventures; and the decentralization of some of the higher functions of government (Ocean Hill?)?

I feel that America is approaching a state where such activity will be desirable, and emotionally possible for large numbers of people; and there are no overt institutional barriers against it. But clearly not everything can be done at once; large industry and the power structure based upon it can not be immediately affected, but they might eventually be, and certainly conventional political agitation is not ruled out by the type of action which I propose.

These are the possibilities that need exploration. Mr. Moore’s pessimism is unfounded and reactionary.

Michael Kenny

St. Edmund Hall

Oxford, England

Jr. Barrington Moore replies:

It is especially wounding for authors in the same field to have their identity mistaken. Having studied carefully both Harold C. Hinton, The Grain Tribute System of China 1845-1911 and some ten years later, William [H.] Hinton, Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village, I greatly regret the quirk of memory that made me confuse two very different writers, from both of whom I learned a great deal. I can only offer my apologies to each of them.

It is especially unfortunate that my error seems to have annoyed William Hinton sufficiently to make him misinterpret my text. I did not claim that the survival and growth of the South China liberated areas was due to the fact that Mao started with regular troops. For most of the column preceding the sentence Mr. Hinton quotes, I stressed the importance of winning the peasants’ support. My point in the sentence quoted was merely that without protection at the start the revolutionary movement would have been crushed, and the whole process of creating liberated areas could not have gotten under way. I still think that this is true. In his discussion of the events of 1927 Jerome Ch’en (Mao and the Chinese Revolution, pp. 129-33) shows how the troops over whom the Communists gained control played a crucial role in establishing the Red Army and the Communist bases, despite setbacks and defeats, of which there were many more to come. If the Chinese Communist leaders had not been able to detach “a part of Chiang’s army,” they probably would have been shot. At the very least, the start of the revolution would have been delayed, with consequences I find it impossible to estimate.

The other aspect of protection in the early stages is space: a place to which one can flee. Yenan and the Long March were merely the most dramatic events in the saga of flight and revolutionary return. Though there is room for disagreement with William Hinton’s interpretation of the growth of the liberated areas after Yenan, it is too complicated for sensible discussion here. One point, nevertheless, does deserve mention. “Carrying through the agrarian revolution” is in my judgment much too strong a phrase. Before they took power the Communists had to go easy on the agrarian revolution, backtracking at times in order to keep popular support. They did not really carry through the agrarian revolution until after victory, indeed after the period described in Fanshen.

These historical issues are, however, secondary ones. On the main one I think that William Hinton and I do agree strongly: military power and social policies are inseparable. Neither can succeed without the other. In the more general form of the connection between political power and social goals this point leads directly to the issues that Mr. Kenny raises.

His proposals have a strong flavor of Kropotkin and amount to a version of what one might call reformist anarchism in order to distinguish it from the violent varieties. From the standpoint of a commitment to reducing the miseries and cruelties that human beings inflict upon each other, they are morally attractive. Like all morally attractive proposals their widespread application in practice strikes me as highly improbable. If they have any prospects of realization, they are in my judgment very long-term ones, as specifically mentioned in my essay.

Given the surroundings of modern industrial society, especially those in the USA, these are, I suggest, the conditions which cooperative counter-communities would have to meet in order to succeed in transforming the existing order, and the obstacles and problems they are liable to encounter. They would have to create communities with a high degree of economic and cultural independence from the surrounding society, and more attractive than this society. Insofar as there exists a moral and cultural revulsion against this society, the task of becoming more attractive is of course much easier. They do not have to compete on the basis of affluence. But they have to do an enormous amount more than create a sub-culture of drugs, sex, and self-indulgent rhetoric, which strikes me as a major trend right now. Secondly, for some sort of relatively peaceful transformation they would have to attract enough recruits to make it impossible to man the necessary posts in the ancien régime, weakening the latter until it collapses rather easily. This prospect too seems very remote. As an astute colleague remarked, when I raised this possibility, for every upper middle-class youngster who drops out of the system now, there are ten ambitious ones from a poorer background who are eager to step into his shoes.

There are, however, other variants of reformist anarchism that deserve consideration and exploration. Here I can only refer to one, mentioned by Mr. Kenny: the growth of such communities to the point where they exert real pressure on the pluralist state through the usual methods of liberal democracy. In this situation, on the other hand, there emerge all the dangers of cooption—one thinks of what happened to the Christians as they gradually became the pillars of the Roman Empire. These communities would have to tread a very thin line between damaging compromises and unnecessary provocation of hostile elements in the surrounding society.

That is why I believe that some means of self-protection—in the form of military force or space or something equivalent—is so crucial. The moment any such oppositional movement shows signs of succeeding, and often enough even before, those hostile to it are liable to mobilize economic, social, and political sanctions, including force. If they cannot prevent its existence, they will do their best to neutralize its political significance. Decentralization and Ocean Hill do not seem to me very happy examples, on the basis of the way they have turned out so far. Though decentralization may be appealing rhetoric, every party in such a move knows what the real stakes are and watches out to preserve or extend its own power. It also seems to me generally foolish for the powerless to use militant tactics and rhetoric for the deliberate purpose of provoking repression. There is no evidence known to me that it gains useful recruits to put the counter-community on a firmer footing. Since their opponents have all the real force, and feel more and more justified in using it when they face these tactics, the rebels merely risk the destruction of their own movement. There is, I think, a distinction between genuine martyrdom and temporary publicity. To recognize the moral justifications for the use of violence by the oppressed does not mean one should resort to it on every possible occasion.

There remains an enormous set of problems in relating the economic activities of cooperative communities to one another, and their political coordination so that they live in peace with one another. So far in human history the main form of at least relatively non-coercive coordination on a big scale has been the free market and Adam Smith’s invisible hand. Clearly that won’t do. Nor will authoritarian socialism. These are problems that any such movement would have to face long before any final “victory.”

In regard to Mr. Kenny’s last sentences, there is certainly room and a crying need for further exploration of the possibilities. Whether the views I have expressed are correct or incorrect is a matter to be decided on the basis of current evidence and future events. To call attention to unpleasant facts and tough problems is hardly “reactionary.” The use of this epithet seems to me a piece of magical incantation to make such facts and problems go away. It is quite incongruous with the tone and level of thought in the rest of Mr. Kenny’s letter.

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