The Problem of the Biodegradibility of Revolution

Four years ago, I wrote an essay called Revolution of the Small: The Uselessness of Global Action and the N.... The main point of the essay was that a person's voice is only meaningful within the range where that voice can be heard. Actions where people try to speak beyond the immediacy of our senses (as when people vote, or buy consumer goods, or join national advocacy organizations) are not meaningful actions because each of our voices becomes such a small fraction of the entire whole. However, because all of our actions do have consequences that reverberate across the universe, it is possible to take local actions which have revolutionary consequences.

I want to piggyback off of that essay to consider a complementary problem of revolution. Because the systems of oppression in our society are so large - global capitalism, global-scale environmental destruction, nuclear weapons, huge nation states - one cannot pretend that a small group in Montana can (or should) successfully pull off the destruction of these systems by ourselves. If we were somehow able to bring capitalism, for instance, to its knees, what would that say about us? Would it say we are damn effective? Or, rather would it say that either we had far more power than any small group of humans should possess, or that we just somehow happened on hitting a leverage point in the system that brought the whole thing tumbling down? We should think the second case more fortuitous except for this point - what next? What happens if the system just unexpectedly crashes down because of a random action somewhere? Are we suddenly to expect liberty and justice to spread throughout the land? Will the hierarchies of abuse simply be gone because the governing and economic systems were thrown into a momentary state of chaos? I would think not, if only because there would have been no cultural change in society. Where would the racists have gone? Would people stop trying to be greedy? Would people stop trying to get others to work in the new factories? Will others not try to get their hands on nuclear weapons?

The truth is that revolutions of this type have happened occasionally in history. The most obvious example was in Russia, where the disaster of World War I finally was the impetus for many decades of radical movement-building to bring about the collapse of the tsar and eventually the rise of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. The ultimate autocratic society crashed and along with it its capitalist institutions. What replaced it? - autocracy and graft and persecution of anyone who did not tote the party line. Defenders of Bolshevism say that this was due to the pressure and ostracizing from the rest of the world, which necessitated the hardships and ugliness of autocracy, but if you read works like Emma Goldman's Disillusionment in Russia and Living My Life one will quickly realize that what happened in Soviet Russia was not at all a revolution and its horrors could not be explained simply by outside intervention. And, that was at the beginning. After many decades of Communist rule, it would be hard to say that the Soviet Union was anything akin to a transitional state to a revolutionary stateless society.

So, even if you doubt your intuitions that a sudden collapse brought about by a few people would not provide the revolutionary change we seek, search through the sudden revolutions of history (from France to Russia to Egypt last year) and see what little such a view of revolution has accomplished.

I want to note two points from this discussion. The first is that a small group of people by themselves cannot bring about a meaningful and lasting revolution. The second is that there is a problem in identifying what will bring about a meaningful and lasting revolution.

If revolutions must begin with small groups of people, but that it must also involve many small groups of people so as to be large enough to take on the system, obviously this raises a lot of issues - many of them I cannot discuss here and frankly I cannot answer. How do small groups coordinate in a way that they can become big while activists work only within the small local context? That is another problem we will need to turn to in another discussion and one that people are discussing. The problem I want to get at, rather, is the notion of the size, scope, and form of a revolution. That is, revolutions must arise out of small groups (if my previous essay from four years ago is correct), but revolutions must be large enough to have any hope of being meaningful and lasting. What form should they take so that they will not simply be transfers of power from one large group to another?

I call this the problem of biodegradability. That is, revolutions must be biodegradable in the way that the consumer products we use should be biodegradable. The power we use to take down the systems of abuse in society must not itself become the new power that lords over everyone else. The power must decompose and not quickly come back. Eventually, any manner of injustice may come back and rise again, and so let me be a little more precise. I think it is enough to be meaningful and lasting if it is not likely to come back during a generation of life, the span in which those who brought about the revolution can live freely without imposing or being imposed upon in any essential way by someone else (that is yet another question we cannot delve into in this essay in any meaningful way and is another huge question). What can bring this about? What allows for small groups of people to band together to take on global power structures that just as quickly fade away?

One controversial thing I'll say to start is that I think that this sort of revolution must then exclude the notion of an armed revolution. It is not necessarily to say that guns need fade away or be eradicated. The truth is; it's hard to see that happening. It is to say that the use of guns cannot be the power that produces revolutionary change. The reason for this seems simple to my mind. If guns are the power that produces revolution, does the power dissipate once the goal has been accomplished? Does not power now reside in those who used the guns to bring about the change? Why should we not expect a new Soviet Union? Why should we call this revolution? We will have killed people; will we have killed a system of hierarchy?

This again is not to say that guns will be gone; the point here is one about power. What power is used to bring about change such that when it is finished, it too is finished? Revolution may in that way be seen more like a cancer on the system. Once the body is killed by cancer, there isn't something left over called cancer that rules the now lifeless body. It too is gone, and the body rots into the earth.

What kind of power then eats at the system but is gone as soon as the system is gone? This is another reason to suggest that revolutions must be led by small groups of people. However, it is not any kind of small group of people. They must be small groups of people who do not function like the hierarchical systems that they resist against - that is, small groups of people who work on principles of consensus and mutual aid function in respect and solidarity with one another. If their actions are directed against abuses in the system, and those small groups are multiplied enough, then the cumulative effect of their actions should matter. If for instance, everyone opted out of the banking system AND worked on creating systems of material aid and support that worked within their very small community, then you would not only be hurting the system but also you would be doing so in a way that was culturally different. If things fall apart, then that small group has been developing the means to care for each other's basic needs. Revolution, then, is a simultaneous effort of large numbers of small groups taking direct action against leverage points in the system while developing and caring for the particular material needs of a group in a non-hierarchical, non-oppressive manner.

Now, that sounds highly unlikely even if I cannot understand how it would be impossible. It may be why I would have trouble finding actual examples of revolution in history. However, it is not impossible. I challenge anyone to show me the contradiction in the model proposed. I do not find one, but I admit that I have no idea how you are going to have a movement so large composed of so many smaller groups of people working on a culturally just model who simultaneously take actions against the overarching system. Yet, that to me seems exactly what is required. It requires taking actions at a local level, not knowing whether anyone will be doing the same in sufficient mass, and doing so on a non-hierarchical model. Wow ... but is it any wonder that history is the sad story of humanity run amok?

What's more, is it any reason not to work for it? The truth is, all of us are better off even if revolution remains elusive to try to go down this route. We will have greater voice the degree to which we engage each other within the range of our actual voices. We will be better off if we find ways to take care of each other. We will be better off if we force the powers that control the system to spend resources to try and quash us. It may not be enough for everyone and our world, but what other choice is there, really? Why should we expect a quick and easy solution? We want a magic bullet, but that is a large part of our problem. We want to get rid of the powers that abuse us, but we think that happens by some quick and aggressive power? This does not involve any meaningful revolution; it will only produce new devils.

Right now, I'm reading about Alexander Berkman, who spent 14 years in prison for attempting to kill Henry Clay Frick during the Homestead steel lockout in 1892. Berkman saw what he was doing as an attentat, a violent act of propaganda, not so much against Frick, but against the system that Frick represented. Frick would die, and the people might see the power they possess through that act. The truth is that Frick didn't die, but even if he had, all that was likely to happen was that Frick would have been replaced. Even if somehow the act of propaganda had served its purpose and the strikers managed to win a pitched battle against Pinkertons and the militia at Homestead would see themselves suddenly as proletarians (somehow fully understanding the import of Berkman's act), why should we imagine that anything is likely to have changed in Western Pennsylvania? I wonder if ultimately that is the lesson that Berkman would have to learn the hard way when he too became disillusioned in Russia so much so that he wrote a book called The Bolshevik Myth.

If we shoot and hit or shoot and miss, that means nothing. What matters is that we do something that has the potential for revolution. We won't get there by traveling to the seat of abuse where no one knows us and doing something where our voice will fall flat. Action must begin for me here in Bozeman and project at the tentacles of power that reach here. From there, you have to build growing overlapping circles of smaller groups, and then you have to hope. That's all we can do; if we really want profound change, we must toil and be workers. Revolution will come if and only if a critical mass embraces that cultural change.

A lot has gone unsaid, and I hope that there is a path that is somewhat easier than the one I have outlined. At this point, I'll throw it out for discussion, particularly within the smaller groups in which I actively engage.

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Comment by Jack Strasburg on March 25, 2012 at 4:42pm

Jim said:  "What I left somewhat, unstated, I suppose, is the assumption that small groups are part of a resistance movement. We are in that way not just building a new house because the old one can't be saved (that's true! - we are building something new) but we are also the termites finishing off the old house."

No, you stated it and I caught it and in fact made a note to respond. Of course a discussion would be better and faster. One always has to be aware that he might not be interpreting the other accurately.

But what I am trying to say is that building the New Paradigm is the resistance and a main reason why I have chosen this path is to avoid direct confrontation as much as possible. If we are successful, the old house will fall apart on its own. The idea is to create an option. To create an alternative econ sys that can provide those interested their needs (and desires) within the framework of peace, justice, harmony and a healthy environment. That option does not currently realistically exist. If we build it, I think large numbers will come. As they occupy the new paradigm, and as more and more recognize its viability and join, they will be giving less to the old one and eventually the old paradigm will lose its ability to dominate.

This is not necessarily an outrageous impossibility. Many, many people would rather make their living without having to be so antagonistic to others and the health of the planet; and I have been working on and researching this long enuf to know that those who support this notion have all the skills and resources necessary to do this. Well, maybe save one: the ability to relate to each other and work and coordinate with each other effectively enuf to make it happen. I suggest that be our primary focus. We may be but an attitude away from paradise; well, there is a little work involved too.

Comment by Jack Strasburg on March 25, 2012 at 5:00pm

Oh Yeah, a couple more things.  I see energy spent trying to tear down the current system as energy taken away from bldg the new and we haven't much to spare.  I also think confrontation increases the energy focused against you and thus the energy needed to deal with that takes even more away from bldg something positive.

Also thanks for the invite to the Montana discussion.  It was my father's favorite state and one of mine.  Did you ever meet a Michael Peck from WI?  I think he ran the maintenance div of Bozeman not too many yrs ago; or maybe it was another town in MT.  Anyway, I intend to check the discussion out.

Comment by Jack Strasburg on March 25, 2012 at 7:34pm

Pawel,    Can't be sure what you mean by material exactly, but I feel confidant that the answ is yes. I've been involved with the activist community for over 30 yrs, been significantly involved with many permaculturists and spent significant time with Intentional Community folks and others, most recently occupiers. I can confidently say there are a lot of cool, competent people out there. I'm not putting out some philosophical or theoretical conjecture. My intent is to put something on the table that is real and could possibly work if the focus and commitment are there.

Perhaps the largest most famous intentional community is in India, there are several very successful ones in Germany and many more throughout the world, including the US. The international protests against the world trade org, internatl monetary fund, the world bank, g8, the wars, the Arab spring, the occupy movement etc have given the peace, justice and enviro movement a tremendous amount of networking. I believe it can be cogently argued that this is strong logical basis for hope.

Not sure that novelty is needed but a lot of people are waking up and new technologies are going to help that continue. If I were to choose a novelty it might be that a fast growing number of people with organizational skills capable of putting things together where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts are willing to ply their skills in ways that serve the common interest rather than just themselves and maybe a small circle. In the past there were far fewer people with these abilities and they tended to use these skills to dominate, and this dynamic is probably a significant factor in why things are the way they are.

Comment by Jim Macdonald on March 26, 2012 at 11:22am

Hi Jack ... no, I don't know Michael Peck - been living in Bozeman for about four years and still don't know a huge number of people.

The difference we have in perspective is discussed in some detail in one of the comments I make on the version of this article.  It's actually a discussion that came up yesterday that I gave in a talk in Helena about our divestment campaign in Bozeman against Wells Fargo bank.  It's a strain of dispute that frankly has existed in activism for over 150 years ... I give a more detailed response in the comments, as I don't actually think it's possible to merely build from below - not just practically but conceptionally - i.e., there may actually be a logical contradiction in thinking of society this way (this is something I'd have to develop further) - just as we can't simply breathe without displacing the molecules around us ...

In any event, you can either respond here, there, or in both places.  There is some merger in lines of thinking in both threads - I'm reading up on Proudhon to be better acquainted with the kind of mutualist thinking that I see in your post and in what I'm finding elsewhere from other people.

Comment by Pawel Klewin on March 28, 2012 at 5:09am

Jim, how can you refuse to discuss logic, naming Leibniz your idol and mentioning the logic of domination? Jack, I refer to your statement about the system gone so far amok that fixing it would be more difficult than creating a new one.

Creating anything new we are doomed to use the vested “material” (motivations, structures, ideas, and knowledge). What can be new are assumptions. On the other hand there is a nature – evolving upon assumptions which are perennial, unknown, and metaphysical.

I have listed five assumptions to provoke a discussion: do we use them to build a new paradigm? Can we use logic to argue their correctness? Can we build anything really meaningful and new unless we agree the set of unprecedented assumptions?

  • Thinking we/species have created the problem – however defined.
  • What I think/believe is meaningless on the background of 7 billion living individuals and hundreds of past generations (constituting evolving collective of conscious life).
  • I cannot change the way I think – the limit of what I can do is to change the input data, reset my mental lens/screen. Confirmation bias phenomenon makes such change extremely difficult.
  • Physically I am the local set of cells performing local actions. Philosophically my thinking mind intertwined with, locked in, powered by my living body is a momentary form of universal process.
  • I can like or dislike physics and philosophy, but dual nature of my self is a given situation – any change can happen only within it.


Jim, this is to explain where these foggy efforts to introduce logic into social networking come from:

I am a member of a nation subjected within last century to two revolutions: first one violent, communist and second one peaceful, based on solidarity. For me revolution is like demolishing a puzzle. Whatever happens afterwards (e.g. we reset it on the new table) the final effect is generally the same.

Comment by Jim Macdonald on March 28, 2012 at 9:49am

Pawel, you've introduced a set of premises; logic looks at the chain of premises to conclusions, identifying the structure and the validity of arguments.  So, I'm not sure what you are saying when you've introduced logic.  From what I can tell, you've introduced assertions, perhaps axioms (or perhaps they are conclusions to other arguments).  As I don't really know what the stream of argument is, I have had trouble commenting.  I can look at an argument, or conjecture upon connections to my own, but I don't know what it means to say one has introduced logic but then presents several premises.  When someone says they introduce logic, I usually take them to mean that they have a means of analysis that can help determine the validity of an argument or which identifies a fallacy in common thinking or shows a key premise upon which the soundness of the entire argument might be questioned.

Forgive me, but I have not been able to understand your various statements in that light, and so I figure you are using words differently than I use them ... and so I have not refused to discuss logic, I have simply chosen not to respond to your comments - simply not knowing what to make of them or how to respond to them. 

We can discuss your premises, but I'd like to see them developed more.  Perhaps, submit your own blog post.  I will read it, as there are intriguing premise (notably, what to make of your fourth and fifth ... as you are dealing with an age old philosophical problem - the nature of the self, as well as the nature of the one and the many).  Yet, tying that to what you term logic, to what I wrote about the narrow issue of the form of revolutions, to all your other premises, and whatever conclusions you are drawing, I'd just urge that you attempt to be a little less foggy - if only for my sake - that I can intelligently respond and not be accused again of the blasphemy of refusing to discuss logic.



P.S.  I can appreciate your concerns about revolution being largely a replication of the same; that certainly drives me to think of the problem in different terms ... and not simply as a change in regime but rather those conditions that can actually produce a world without regime (an obviously anarchistic project I am engaged in).

Comment by Pawel Klewin on March 29, 2012 at 11:07am

Long live the logic :-) you are right, my premises are conclusions to other arguments. “Other arguments” concern the general impotence to reach common conclusion – the situation I have observed starting my social networking activity in 2008 and now I try to explore.

Upon the same observation (I think so) Ben & Jittendra declare uselessness of asynchronous communication and argumentative approach, devaluating the web - most promising success of science and technology. No wonder OC forum is practically dead.

In my opinion it is a grave error, of the same nature as opposition of science and religion(s). Nevertheless they use unquestionable authority of faith and I have no point of attachment to build the chain of arguments. When I say: thinking we have created the problem my logic prompts me: “only thinking we can solve it”. Evidently there is another logic, saying: “we should stop thinking”.

Do you still wonder you could not understand me? We are using fuzzy individual logics and it explains the state of amok Jack speaks about. We cannot understand each other, fuzzy logic is subjective. Any effort (e.g. blog) to present chain of arguments upon I think, I believe, I hope is pointless – I must be humble enough to know my logic is also fuzzy.

What I try to argue is a possibility of grasping logic through logic (as Steiner proposes to grasp thinking through thinking).

It would require radical change of approach. Any path from fuzzy logic to more objective, propositional logic and in the next step to probabilistic, systemic logic is not a direct path to the solution of global problem.  It needs first a structure of collective, oriented at understanding the logic of an individual and fundamental fallacy/error of individuated consciousness.

Does this explanation help? It’s no use to continue until you answer.

P.S. It seems to me OC stewards and majority of OC members see faith and logic as contradictory and conflicting. I do not think they are right.

Comment by Jim Macdonald on March 29, 2012 at 11:49am

Well, these are all interesting points. 

I am not sure that logic is fuzzy; what I think is fuzzy is our epistemological relationship with each other.  If we could understand the premises, we could deduce the conclusions.  However, language is very nuanced.  We can mean all kinds of things by what we say.  I can "right" the wrong word, and you know that I meant "write" instead of "right."  Yet, I can say a word like "logic" or "valid" or "faith," and we have no idea what each other are talking about.

Thus, I would not agree - as I understand logic - that it is fuzzy.  And even if it were - if we are missing the meanings we mean when we use the word - what is fuzzy must exist in a context that isn't.  We have to understand anything which we deem as unclear within the concept of clarity.  Thus, reality has that nature - that it is once manifold in the way that it can appear and yet surely one reality.

Many of our problems in understanding can be solved, I believe, if we understand the relationship of one and many in Being.  Now, can you see the Leibnizian in me coming out?

(I will also manage to get this back to my discussion; just watch in a bit, but first let me do some housekeeping.)

"Faith" is one of those words that's so loaded that I rarely know what someone means when they say it.  If a partner is faithful, no one would say that the faith of a partner is a contradiction to logic.  One would use the word much like one would use "loyal."  One keeps the faith; it has in that sense that it is tied up in knowledge.  You cannot be faithful to what you do not know.  Yet, obviously, people also mean by the word - the believe in that which one cannot know.  And, some philosophers have said that it is still sometimes logical to act on such a belief even in absence of knowledge (of course, William James comes to mind).  He makes arguments like this in the "Will to Believe" that if we waited for knowledge before we acted, we would not act in many cases.  Some acts, he argues, actually require us to believe without knowing.  Yet, I'm not sure that's a useful way to put it.  It's still an interesting argument.  Others have held that faith requires at the very least that the object of belief not be illogical (by that, I mean self-contradictory), though it may not be known.  So, you may not know everything about your friend, but you may believe that he is honest.  However, if your friend has repeatedly lied to you, your belief begins to make less and less sense.  If you then say that you believe your friend is not a friend, you have committed a blatant contradiction, if you say by faith that your friend is and is not a friend.  That cannot be an object of faith, and yet it would show faith and logic are still intertwined with each other (this is actually Leibniz's view on the matter).  Personally, I have always been more fond of thinking of faith as an activity, a kind of loyalty (my dad has told me that faith in the Bible is sometimes actually used as a verb).  As an activity - faithing - strikes me more like Plato's second part of the soul, the spirited part that picks sides.  It is a force of conviction - not merely an appetite and not merely a reason. 

Now, you tell me by what you mean by these terms, and we can begin to bridge the semantical gaps. (rest of answer in the next response ... I hit my character limit)


Comment by Jim Macdonald on March 29, 2012 at 11:49am

Now, if logic - as I understand it - is troubled by our epistemological uncertainty in regards to the world, that it is yet another example of one and many - one reality, many appearances; one logic, many interpretations of the same argument ... what does that say about revolution and its rotting quality?  How do we build a one up so much that at the moment of its victory, it ceases to be one but scatters into the many?  (I may be shifting the problem slightly here, but that's not much of an issue, because it's all the same thing; the shifting within a stable core serves to illustrate my point).  These are not just mechanical problems; they are conceptual problems.  We think that if you throw a ball against a wall, a ball comes back.  If the sum of power to destroy something succeeds, at least you have the remainder.  All of these things are conceptual confusions.  It ultimately depends what the nature of that thing is.  The ball bounces back, the cannonball hits the wall and smashes through leaving a cannon ball, rain hits the wall, erodes the wall, and eventually evaporates.  All are one, all represent a kind of power, but not all leave the same result.  The one can have many natures.  One might call this fuzzy; I'd actually prefer to think of it as distinct.  The meaning of "one" hasn't changed; what's understood is that "one" however can and does involve infinitely many things.

That revolutions thus far have been more like cannonballs hitting the wall leaving wreckage and the person in charge with a cannonball - that some have used other weapons like cannonballs to produce Bolshevism or Liberalism - misses that there might be a revolution that is more like rain.  Now, the challenge is to think of what that is.  The closest thing I've seen that tries to answer this is syndicalism, but I don't think necessarily that that is enough or quite captures the diversity of our lives (or equivocates the meaning of "work", reducing it merely to an economic equation).  It's still moving the question tremendously in the right direction.  Workers themselves control the means of their own production; when the system comes tumbling, all we have are workers doing their thing.  It sounds nice; it's not much of a reflection of the diversity of human society.  Yet, it's a healthy start.  What are the possibilities (there doesn't need to be only one) that have the power to wreck the systems but do not themselves become ominous to our lives.  Theoretically, it's possible.  And, having that theoretical framework is important to open our mind to considering the possibilities.  Doing that is for more imaginative people than me, most likely - I'm just a midwife of sorts.

Take care,


Comment by Pawel Klewin on March 29, 2012 at 5:02pm

Before I answer -  fuzzy logic


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