By Jack McGrath
The past decade saw revolution and protest unfold across the globe. It does not seem that this decade will be any different. If anything, matters look to escalate: one might bring to mind the recent widespread protests in Belarus, Peru, and the U.S. Being on the constant cusp of global change, as it seems we will be in the 2020s, the terms revolution and reform will likely become even more common use in media and discussion than they already are (Thailand protests, U.S Cultural Revolution, Beirut revolution). But what is the relationship between the two? What happens, in particular, when revolution becomes reform?
One might call this process validation. The birth of the partnership between official and revolutionary.
There are a few things this partnership entails. It means support – government support. It means advice – government advice. It means limitation – government limitation. And it means all that in that order.
Perhaps the point has been put more aptly by Malcolm X:
“The next scene was the “big six” civil rights Negro “leaders” meeting in New York City with the white head of a big philanthropic agency. They were told that their money–wrangling in public was damaging their image. And a reported $800,000 was donated to a United Civil Rights Leadership council that was quickly organized by the “big six.”
Now, what had instantly achieved black unity? The white man’s money. What string was attached to the money? Advice. Not only was there this donation, but another comparable sum was promised, for sometime later on, after the March. . . obviously if all went well.” (Haley, 2001, p. 386)
For the record, I do not share Malcom X’s attitude to The March on Washington. But nonetheless, regardless of where one stands on that issue, one can see exactly what he meant: The Black Revolution, as he envisaged it, had been undermined. Why? Because those who should have been fellow revolutionaries, to his eyes, had welcomed White support. And with White support, came White advice. Advice which would seek to curb the more radical elements of the revolution: to, eventually, ensure that revolution was supplanted by reform.
One might, alternatively, consider the Russian Revolution of 1905. Specifically, I am thinking of the Duma and the October Manifesto. For both could, in their nature, be seen as manifesting the sort of partnership we are here concerned with and were both to have the consequence of watering-down the revolution (at least, for the short-term).
Trotsky, I think, saw this when he said, with exasperation, “You are repeating what your predecessors did in the same situation half a century ago…You are afraid of breaking with the Duma, because to you this constitutional mirage seems real in the dry and barren desert through which Russian liberalism has been wading” (Deutscher, 2003, p.100) – and as he then conjured the image of the revolution ebbing away.
This takes us back to where we started, then, revolution and reform. When revolution becomes reform through validation, it is unavoidably watered-down. Parts are supported. The rest is left by the side. Of course, this is not to say that the end-product of validation is always a disappointment. Not at all. It can be quite the contrary. But it is, nonetheless, to say that revolution can never wholly survive the process of validation.
In light of this, one might even imagine validation as a tool for undermining truly unwieldy unrest. “To undermine the revolution” one official might say to another, “validate it. Not all of it. But enough of it. The relevant and agreeable parts. And then, in partnership with those proper elements, mold that behemoth, that hulking monstrosity, that revolution, into an inconvenient force for reform.”
So, when you see revolution validated in the decade to come, as it surely will be on occasion, look to see what is validated. Look to see that the tools for true, positive, genuine, change are not dismantled in the process. And if they are, in Europe, Asia, Africa, or the Americas, raise your voice and fight to reclaim the revolution.