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Lessons from the revolutionary past.adbusters_99_splash_Graeber

The French revolution might have appeared to only take place in one country, but really it quickly transformed the entire North Atlantic world so profoundly that a mere 20 years later, ideas that had previously been considered lunatic fringe – that social change was good, that governments existed to manage social change, that governments drew their legitimacy from an entity known as the people – had been propelled so deeply into common sense that even the stodgiest conservative had to at least pay lip service to them. In 1848 revolutions broke out almost simultaneously in 50 different countries from Wallachia to Brazil. In no country did the revolutionaries succeed in taking power, but afterwards, institutions inspired by the French revolution – universal education systems, for instance – were created pretty much everywhere.

We see the same pattern recur in the 20th century. The “ten days that shook the world” in 1917 took place in Russia, where revolutionaries did manage to seize state power, but what Wallerstein calls the “world revolution of 1968” was more like 1848: it rippled from China to Czechoslovakia to France to Mexico, took power nowhere, but nonetheless began a broad transformation in our sense of what a revolution might even mean.

In a way, though, the 20th-century sequence was very different because ’68 didn’t consolidate the gains of 1917 – in fact it marked the first significant move in the opposite direction. The Russian revolution of course represented the ultimate apotheosis of the Jacobin ideal of transforming society from above. The world revolution of 1968 was more anarchist in spirit. There’s a strange paradox here since by the late ‘60s anarchism itself had largely disappeared as a mass social movement. Yet its spirit pervaded everything: the revolt against bureaucratic conformity, the rejection of party politics, the dedication to the creation of a new, liberatory culture that would allow for genuine individual self-realization.

The most profound and enduring legacy of the world revolution of ’68 was modern feminism. And it was only through the imperatives and sensibilities introduced by radical feminism, the nonhierarchical consciousness-raising circles, the emergence of consensus process, the emphasis on smoking out every form of inequality, no matter how deeply embedded in our everyday existence, that Anarchism – as a social movement – itself began to take form once again.

In recent years we have seen a kind of continual series of tiny ’68s. The uprisings against state socialism that began in Tiananmen Square and culminated in the collapse of the Soviet Union began that way, though they were quickly diverted into the culmination of that capitalist recuperation of the spirit of ’60s rebellion that has come to be known as “neoliberalism.” After the Zapatista world revolution – they called it the Fourth World War – began in ’94, such mini-’68s began happening so thick and fast the process almost seemed to have become institutionalized: Seattle, Genoa, Cancun, Quebec, Hong Kong … And insofar as it was indeed institutionalized, by global networks the Zapatistas had helped set up, it was on the basis of a kind of small-a anarchism based on principles of decentralized direct democracy and direct action. The prospect of facing a genuine global democratic movement seems to have so frightened the US authorities, in particular, that they went into veritable panic mode. There is of course a traditional antidote to the threat of mass mobilization from below. You start a war. It doesn’t really matter who the war is against. The point is just to have one; preferably, on as wide a scale as possible. In this case the US government had the extraordinary advantage of a genuine pretext – a ragtag crew of hitherto largely ineffective right-wing Islamists who, for once in history, had attempted a wildly ambitious terrorist scheme and actually pulled it off. Rather than simply track down those responsible, the US began throwing billions of dollars of armament at anything in sight. Ten years later, the resulting paroxysm of imperial overstretch appears to have undermined the very basis of the American Empire. What we are now witnessing is the process of that empire’s collapse.

It only makes sense then that the World Revolution of 2011 should have begun as a rebellion against US client states, in much the same way as the rebellions that brought down Soviet power began in places like Poland and Czechoslovakia. The wave of rebellion soon spread across the Mediterranean from North Africa to Southern Europe, and then, much more uncertainly at first, across the Atlantic to New York. But once it had, in a matter of weeks it had exploded everywhere. At this point it’s extremely difficult to predict how far all this will ultimately go. Truly historical events, after all, consist of precisely those moments that could not have been predicted beforehand. Could we be in the presence of a fundamental shift like 1789 – a shift not only in global power relations but in our elementary political common sense? It’s impossible to say, but there are reasons to be optimistic.

Let me end by listing three:

First, in no previous world revolution has the main center of mobilization been in the imperial center itself. Great Britain, the great imperial power of the 19th century, was barely affected by the uprisings of 1789 and 1848. In the same way, the US remained largely immune from the great revolutionary moments of the 20th century. The decisive street battles typically happen not in the imperial center, nor in the super-exploited margins, but in what might be termed the second tier: not London but Paris, not Berlin but St. Petersburg. The 2011 revolution started according to that familiar pattern, but it has actually spread to the imperial center itself. If this is sustained, it will be quite unprecedented.

Also, this time the power elite can’t start a war. They already tried that. They’re basically out of cards to play in this respect. This makes an enormous difference.

Lastly, the spread of feminist and anarchist sensibilities has opened up the possibility of a genuine cultural transformation. Here is the big question: Can we create a genuinely democratic culture? Can we change our fundamental conceptions of what politics must necessarily be like? For me, the image of middle-aged white guys in suits, in places like Denver or Minneapolis, patiently learning consensus process from pagan priestesses or members of groups like Anarchist People of Color so as to take part in their local General Assemblies (and there are … it’s true! I’ve heard reports) may well be the single most dramatic image to have come out of the Occupy movement so far.

Of course this could be the first moment in yet another round of recuperation and defeat. But if we are witnessing another 1789, a moment where our most basic assumptions about politics, economics, society, are about to be transformed – this is precisely how it would have to begin.

David Graeber, a professor and anarchist activist, has been called “the best anthropological theorist of his generation.” He helped organize #OCCUPYWALLSTREET on the ground in New York. His latest book is Debt: The First 5,000 Years.[cherry_banner image=”4717″ title=”Adbusters #99″ url=”″ template=”issue.tmpl”]The Big Ideas of 2012[/cherry_banner]