Johnny Brainwash is an armchair activist and disaffected leftist. His past political activity has ranged from blockading logging roads with Wild Rockies Earth First to coordinating a state campaign for Nader in 2000, with lots of other stops along the way. He mostly organizes Discordian bullshit now, because when he fucks up, no forests get cut down and no one goes to jail. He blogs occasionally at Dysnomia and Shut Up You Are An Idiot. You can read his open letter to Obama-haters here and his follow-up here.
Klint Finley: I suppose you should start by defining what you mean when you say “revolution.”
Johnny Brainwash: Well, it’s one of those slippery words, like freedom or democracy, that gets used a lot of different ways. I’m assuming here a political and social aspect, and really focusing on what are sometimes called “social revolutions” or “the Great Revolutions.”
The basic definition for me is a rapid and fundamental change in not only political leadership, but also economic and social relations.
So the American Revolution or the various colored revolutions (like Georgia’s Rose Revolution) don’t make the cut, but the French or Russian Revolutions do.
True Story: Johnny Brainwash and his compatriots once, while in jail, went on a hunger strike because the guards wouldn’t feed them. It worked.
What made you decide to study the revolutions and their history?
I was an Earth First! activist in the 90s, and had been involved in various other causes as well. We talked a lot about revolution, but never had a solid foundation to build on. It was always based on the world as we thought it ought to be, but rarely took into account the world as it is.
When I bailed on that type of activism, I went back to school to finish my history degree with the pretty clear intention of learning how it had actually worked in the past. I’m drawing especially on a poli-sci class called “Political Violence and Revolutions,” but also on a broad range of other sources I’ve encountered both in school and out.
What are the essential conditions required for a revolution to take place?
Surprisingly, revolutions don’t typically happen when things are bad and getting worse. The classic phrase is “the miserable don’t rebel.” Revolution usually happens when things are getting better but not as fast as people expect, or when things were getting better and have now taken a dive. The key is the gap between reality and expectations. Obamanauts, I’m looking at you.
Also, a very important caveat: anything that meets this standard of revolution has happened in a society that is entering the modern world- typically transitioning from agrarian to industrial economy, and from rural to urban. So to some extent, social revolution belongs to the past. The models I’ll be talking about give us some good ideas of what’s important and what to look for, but I wouldn’t expect them to play out the same way today except in narrow circumstances.
Well then, what models are you going to talk about?
I’m drawing pretty heavily on Samuel P. Huntington here, so let me warn you that he’s a bad man. He did a lot of this work in the 70’s on behalf of the military dictatorship of Brazil, helping them forestall a revolution. But that meant he had to get his hands dirty with the details of history, and he’s always insightful, even when serving the dark side.
Huntington basically divided revolutions into two categories, eastern and western. The names are unfortunate, so don’t be fooled- there’s no real geography involved. It’s just that one is modeled on China and the other on France.
Eastern revolutions we can cover quickly and dismiss, since they’re not terribly relevant to our situation. These are the classic guerrilla uprisings, like we saw in China, Cuba or Nicaragua. They involve a revolutionary actor building its strength in the countryside until it’s strong enough to take cities, and ultimately to take the capital. Very exciting, but not likely to happen in our society.
Much more interesting is the western model, such as France, Russia or Iran. Typically this involves a long period of troubles or unrest, leading to the collapse of the ruling elite. Then others can step in to pick up the pieces. There’s typically a struggle at this point, and if the military or another faction of the old elite come out on top, you don’t get real social change. If a group with a different power base and a different agenda end up in power, however, you’ve got a revolution on your hands.
So that’s why you say the American Revolution and the “color revolutions” don’t count? Because the new powers were old elites?
Essentially, yes. The American Revolution, for instance, may have made some huge localized differences, such as in upland New England, but the big landowners were still big landowners, the wealthy merchants were still wealthy merchants, and the slaves were still slaves. Representative government wasn’t a big change, and no big changes occurred (on the large scale) in who was represented. We could say that a lot of big changes followed, but if it takes 150 years, it ain’t a revolution.
What about the Velvet Revolution?
I’m torn about how to view the various post-Soviet changes. A lot of them ended up with party bosses still in charge, but Czechoslovakia was a clearer change. There was a shift from state capitalism to market capitalism, but I’m not too clear on how much social change occurred.
What many of those post-Soviet changes had in common is that the waters are muddied by the absorption of the former communist states into the Western institutions such as NATO, the EU, etc.
Why do you say an eastern revolution unlikely to take place?
A couple of reasons. For one, the traditional model requires a large agrarian base, and all the angry farmers in the US just don’t add up to enough people anymore. More important is the simple question of military power. The only way a movement could grow strong enough to take on the paramilitarized surveillance state backed up by an enormous and well-prepared military is if it recruits its own military power from the army and the police.
I don’t say this is unlikely- in fact, it’s a more valid concern than it has been in decades. But by drawing on the institutions of power, it guarantees that it will not be revolutionary in nature. Just a different set of goons on top, and no more hiding behind veils of democracy or what have you.
Are there means by which groups can engineer revolutions?
Um… maybe. Like I said at the outset, the social revolutions are all a product of the transition to an industrial urbanized society. So we can reason by analogy, but there are limits to how far that goes.
I would say it’s important to look at Huntington’s western model and see how much we would be relying on stepping into a political vacuum. In that case, it’s a matter of organizing ourselves today for something that might not happen for a long time, and pursuing goals short of revolution in the meantime.
You can’t rely on calling up your friends in a moment of crisis. By the time the crisis occurs, you want to have a large network that is ready to go. The only way I know how to do that is to organize today for the things that are in our reach and don’t frighten people away from us. As the crisis approaches, we can ask for more.
Sooner or later, the choice may be stark enough that people will have to choose.
Are there any countries that are close enough to collapse to have a revolution? Mexico, for example?
Mexico is interesting. Close to collapse, sure, maybe. But who would step in to fill the vacuum? Maybe the Zapatista networks could carve out a region in the south, but I don’t know if there’s a strong enough revolutionary movement to succeed nationwide. The worst case is that the drug cartels end up ruling big chunks of the north.
Pakistan, now, that’s a whole ‘nother question. They’re still in the transition to urban and industrial, their government is in pretty bad shape, and there’s a revolutionary movement already taking power in some places the government can’t hold. It’s not the kind of revolution I’d want, but it’s certainly revolutionary.
Above: photo from 10th anniversary of the Nicaraguan revolution
What revolutions have been the most successful overall – the ones you’d most like to see emulated?
I’m careful about saying I’d like to see any of them emulated- the Terror was a logical outcome of the French Revolution, and similar outcomes can be seen in nearly every example. As an old lefty, I’m inclined to point out Nicaragua as a revolutionary state that had less of that sort of atrocity than most, but we never got a chance to see how things would play out there.
In general, revolution is always violent and bloody, and the violence is often indiscriminate. The older I get and the more I learn about history, the harder it is to close my eyes to mass murder. On the other hand, leaving our society as it is amounts to closing our eyes to massive indiscriminate violence as well.
I would like to spend more time learning about how the relatively bloodless colored revolutions work, knowing that they only happened with support from outside powers (like the US) and served only to bring those countries into the western institutions. But the use of civil society as an organizing principle might be of some use in making future revolutions less vicious.
Above: Demonstration at the Mayor’s Office, Freedom Square, Tbilisi, Georgia, 2003
Are you suggesting that radicals might be better off working within civil society to bring about change gradually rather than revolutionarily?
I think the choice of whether to commit revolution or not isn’t necessarily in our hands. It depends on material conditions. I suppose at some point we could work on bringing about a collapse, but trying that before we build the strength to exploit the collapse would be silly.
To me, the argument between revolution and reform is old baggage we need to get rid of. We don’t know what the world will do around us, so we should be prepared for whatever awaits. If we start organizing and find we’re strong enough when a vacuum occurs, then great, we’ve got a revolution. If we start organizing and find that the vacuum never happens, then we’d better do what we can with what we’ve got.
Demanding revolutionary action or none at all is simply hubris.
What do you think radically minded activists can do to make a difference in their communities or the world?
Well, I keep using the word “organize,” and I’m not sure it’s one people really get. We’re mostly stuck in the “activism” paradigm, which is very individualistic and focuses on people getting to express themselves. It’s egotistical in that the goal is for the activist to feel fulfilled, rather than to achieve anything concrete.
Real organizing means you have to work with people you might not have a beer with otherwise, and focus on what’s important to them instead of you. It means building an organization or a network that is capable of responding to events instead of building ad hoc groups for every issue.
If you’re thinking of revolutionary change, it means recruiting people who are not as revolutionary as you, and helping them become radicalized as their expectations of Obama are continually dashed.
It also means leadership, organization and discipline, three things that are anathema to many radicals with roots in the old “new left.”
Above: anti-fur activists
Can you point to any good examples of the type of organizing you’d like to see more of?
I’ve got a knee-jerk reaction to say the teabaggers, but without Fox News on your side, you can’t get the coverage that they did. And besides, it’s not like they’re winning or anything.
I have a hard time pointing to much that I like from the aughts, but in the 90s, the two most effective movements (and therefore those worth studying, if not necessarily emulating) were the anti-abortion crowd and the anti-fur people.
More broadly, I would set political baggage aside and study how the modern conservative movement went from the political wilderness in 1960 to the Reagan/Bush/Gingrich/Bush years that reshaped an awful lot of how the country is run. They had a genuine grassroots, combined with a slick political operation that invented a lot of our modern techniques of mass politics.
Do you have any other messages for would-be organizers before we sign off?
Be patient. You can build something that can fit into the flow of events, but no one can simply grab the world by the collar and issue demands. You need time to build, and you need time to understand. A good dose of humility helps as well- you’re not the messiah, and you’re not the only one trying to do good.
Finally, just stay grounded in the world. It’s good to have lots of theories, but nothing gets done until you’ve got some dirt under your nails.
March 26, 2010 at 7:00 am
technoccult is on a roll
March 26, 2010 at 5:17 pm
Some interesting and thoughtful reflection on revolution from someone who isn’t an academic…Nice to see. However, what seems missing here is a realization of the role of ideas — the French Revolution was proceeded by the secularizing, pragmatically rational impulses of the Enlightenment (and thus anti-clericalism was a significant feature of the revolutionary movement). In Russia, the model was Marx, as interpreted by intellectuals who parachuted themselves into the archaic, rural Tsarist political scene. Even in 1979 the situation was preceded by changes in religious thought going back decades…
In short, revolution are not just a social phenomena, but driven by new intellectual outlooks that need a period of ferment. All the identity politics of the 60s/70s and beyond (civil rights, feminism, etc…) had deeper historical roots.
What new framework of thought or ideas is there today? What real challenge to dominant discourse exists that would provide the mental drive to change things in the real world? These are central questions if the idea of revolution is to be taken seriously. Otherwise, it’s just stylish, impotent radicalism.
April 9, 2010 at 12:54 am
Excellent interview article. While we’ve met a handful of times in person, articles like these help illustrate a bit more than would be found in a few casual conversations.
“no one can simply grab the world by the collar and issue demands” This attitude has a lot of relevence to me since most people I’ve met who speak of such things seem to think exactly the opposite.
Revolution always ends up seeming like a wet-dream for political contrarians. Not so much a means to a goal, but often the goal itself.
I think the point about organizing/acting with people that fall outside your particular social circle is incredibly simple but powerful and frequently neglected idea among many.
It’s amazing how socially insulated some people become.
Getting people to relate to each other.
I think thats a big problem that feels like it’s getting bigger, and a good place to start laying a foundation.
Great article, and thanks for sharing your thoughts.