I am proudly part of a generation whose life was framed by a revolutionary commitment to socialist alternatives to capitalism, which for me always included struggles against racial and sexist oppression. Many of my generation—I was a teenager during the 1960s—have forsaken their radical past. Book after book has come out about how many radicals grew up into “realists” who accept the inevitability of neoliberal capitalism. I never grew up. Or, more precisely, I never identified maturity with pessimism about the possibility of significant social change. In my view, such pessimism becomes a limit on what can be imagined and fought for, because it projects revolutionary struggles as already defeated. At the same time, during my years as a union organizer I learned that day-to-day organizing is hard work. Dramatic events such as general strikes and class struggles do not just come out of nowhere, at least not in my experience. Revolutions do not just happen: they are mobilized.
The German-Jewish thinker Walter Benjamin wrote brilliantly about what he called the phantasmagoria of advanced capitalism, in which we are blinded by the glare of ever-changing images that promise us immediate gratification through the consumption of the latest trendy goods. Even the news we watch combines sound bites with twirling lights, turning current events into a neon show. We are supposedly in a field of endless enjoyment, but the cruel reality is of course that many people have no access to the most basic goods needed to sustain a human life. Benjamin’s point was that the phantasmagoria itself always threatens to capture our imagination, because it seems so endlessly enchanting in a world of constantly shifting fantasies of self-fulfillment. Along with the persistence of this phantasmagoria, the fall of the Berlin Wall and, with it, the collapse of a certain vision of what constituted socialism, has deeply underscored the seeming foreclosure of revolutionary possibility.
But we are now witnessing one of the most powerful revolutionary movements in modern times, which has spread throughout North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula (I would designate these movements as revolutions because they are seeking the overthrow of existing governments). Of course it was hard not to be profoundly engaged with the events at Tahrir Square, which seemed to represent a people’s rising in the most joyous sense of the word, as those who participated not only fought against the state, but celebrated their self-empowerment. In recent weeks, the question of what kind of government should be constituted in Egypt has become more and more contentious, with protestors becoming increasingly suspicious of the so-called “neutral” military government. The situation in Libya is even more complicated, in that there is little doubt that the so-called “NATO alliance” has its own agenda, which has everything to do with oil and economic control, and nothing with real transformative change. A humanitarian intervention through bombing has always seemed to me to be a contradiction in terms, if not a farce.
Do we really know for sure—and how could we know for sure—that there is not revolutionary potential in Libya, when there is little doubt that revolutionaries throughout North Africa and the Arabian peninsula are in contact with one another? Part of what it means to support these uprisings is that we on the left do not rush to judgment in making determinations about what are the “good” revolutions and what are the “bad” ones. Given the history of U.S. and European imperialism, to be willing to call these events revolutions, and to support them, is to make a judgment, both about the ghastly past of U.S. and European interventions, and about the continuing possibility of revolutionary breakthroughs. For example, the rebels in Libya have made a call to both U.S. and European governments, as well as potential leftist supporters in those geographic areas, to either directly supply them with arms or to raise money for their continuing struggle. Certainly, we have to be careful to analyze what kind of support we are being called to, particularly in the case of Libya, when some on the left seem to support humanitarian intervention, without thinking through what kind of intervention would remain independent from any attempt of the U.S. or Europe to dominate the struggle in Libya. But should we be absolutely against arming the rebels, if that is what they demand? It is often difficult to tell the difference between a revolution and a war from a distance, because of the forces that may be pitted against a people’s uprising. Some means of armed self-defense is clearly necessary, and this can indeed turn into what is for all practical purposes a war on the ground.
The larger point, here, is that we are being confronted not only with revolutionary possibility but with actual revolutions, and these revolutions unquestionably put forward the huge question of how it is actually possible to constitute revolutionary governments faithful to the idea of democratic socialism as a true alternative to capitalist economic development. These are the questions that many of us on the left turned away from as simply out of sync with the seemingly limited possibilities of social change. So instead we talked about multiculturalism and a “third way” as the only possible political alternatives available to us. Indeed, leftists were often criticized for seeing revolutionary possibility in what were instead designated as struggles with only limited social or economic demands.
For all the complexity of what is now happening in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, we are unquestionably seeing peoples’ uprisings that identify themselves as revolutions, so if we in the U.S. and in Europe were to continue to deny revolutionary possibility, we would have to seriously examine why we are doing that. How have we become so accepting of our own disempowerment? That Egyptian revolutionaries ordered pizza for the Wisconsin workers protesting against the end of their labor rights shows how revolutionary solidarity is not an empty phrase, but a living reality for those in struggle on the ground.