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Revolutionaries working within the system?

Wondering about people saying they are revolutionaries and so they don't believe in working within the system --- my dictionary says that a political revolution is "BROUGHT ABOUT FROM WITHIN A GIVEN SYSTEM."
Many highly political people scoff at the idea of changing the system from within, but the alternative to that strategy is . . . what? My dictionary (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language) defines "revolution," as follows: 1. "Orbital motion about a point . . . " 2. An assertedly momentous change in any situation . . . " 3. A sudden political overthrow brought about from within a given system . . . " So that's like (1) the revolution of the wheels of your bicycle, (2) a revolution like the "computer revolution" or the "industrial revolution", and, (3) political revolution that is what self-styled "revolutionaries" claim to be making or promoting. But look at the phrase, "brought about from within a given system," and realize that, by definition, REVOLUTION IS BROUGHT ABOUT FROM WITHIN THE SYSTEM. This has been discussed by the eminent Russian neo-Marxist, Aleksandr Buzgalin, as a primary contradiction of the global peace-and-justice movement --- namely, that as we strive to create communities and networks to replace the existing system with something very different from the existing institutions, we are all the time constrained to act and live within the confines of the existing institutions.

This dilemma --- in Hegelian or Marxist terms, a "contradiction" --- is well brought out in the movie MEN WITH GUNS (Spanish with English subtitles). The protagonist, a medical doctor and professor, goes into the mountains to try to track down whatever happened to the "barefoot medics" that he trained and sent out to the people years before. In the end, he suffers from shock as his illusions about the country-side are destroyed by seeing close-up how the country-side is being destroyed by the militaristic infrastructure of his own culture. The doctor finally pursues, with a small rag-tag band gathered on his wanderings, the illusory ecosocialist village where people live in harmony with the earth under the radar of the militaristic infrastructure and in a community where basics are shared by all. Maybe he even finds that illusive village. You have to watch the movie and form your own opinion.

Among the dirty words thrown by "revolutionaries" at anyone who doesn't agree with their current favorite idea about how to move forward toward "THE REVOLUTION" are "liberal" and "reformist". The word "liberal" has been so deformed by the American "Right" that it has almost lost all meaning while "reformist" simply means someone who advocates reform --- but there we reach an interesting result from the dictionary. It all comes down to the word "revolution" in a political context, because "liberal" is defined as seeking "non-revolutionary progress and reform" while "reform" is defined as "A movement that attempts to institute improved social and political conditions without revolutionary change." Following Immanuel Wallerstein's idea of "systemic social movement" as distinguished from other social movements, we can say that the "revolutionaries" envision something that when you get there, you won't be able to recognize where it was that you started from, whereas the "liberals" want to look around and see they are still in the same old town where they were born. Which one is the illusion or delusion, which is the reality? Anyway you look at it, we ALL work within the system. Well, except maybe for the super-rich who can afford to snap their fingers and materialize any illusion or delusion they may have. Otherwise, you can test this out by embarking on a path of immediately transforming your own life, and then either you work covertly within the system like everybody else or you work within the system from inside the mental health community/establishment.

So which are you? I won't insult you by suggesting that you might be a Democrat or a Green, because I know that's a touchy subject, but are you a "revolutionary"? And --- be honest now --- do you work within the system or don't you?
response to your qu 26.Mar.2004 13:28


well,, lets see here..throw away your white mans dictionary first---, you ask a fairly simple yet complex question; which is to say, I could say "yes, I work within the system" or "no, I choose not to work within the system" and that would be that. But there are many variables that come into play, and that I think you have either naively left out or for the purpose of quick conversation and tired hands have simply left out. I assume that when you suggest "working within the system" you mean one who is employed as either a paid "activist", social worker, teacher, atty--etc etc, but whose focus is justice...I use to think that one could be a cog and make change, whether you wish to coin this change as revolutionary or fundamental is up to you--but as I delve deeper into the system, which is no longer limited to the borders of the US, but now we're playing the global game, I believe that in order to have any radical <the root of this word is rad, which means going back to ones roots>, change we must start anew--this "system" is so sick that any progressive postive change is not feasable...it will of course need to get worse before it gets better...and especially here in the US..we, who are working towards justice--whether that be enviro, economic, social--etc etc...<all the same really>...need to stop romanticizing the poor..and blaming apathy or non-involvement on poverty--we need to get back to our roots when unions and grassroots power houses were actually capable of affecting policy...in my utopia, there would be no need for policy this or policy that, or subsidized blah blah blah, because everyone would have equal access to all things--arts, acadamia, water, food, shelter, travel--etc etc..the current capitalist thought and theory that we are operating with is archaic too--which is another variable--the biggest one of them all....


Revolutionaries often work within the system 26.Mar.2004 14:37

Gary Sudborough IconoclastGS@aol.com

Yes, revolutionaries often work within a system, but never lose sight of the fact that their goal is not a few minor reforms, but rather the destruction of the system and its replacement by a new one. For instance, after the 1905 Russian revolution Czar Nicholas II was convinced by his advisors to establish a representative body called the Duma. Some of the Bolsheviks were against participating it this Duma at all, but Lenin insisted that Bolshevik representatives be sent to the Duma. However, Lenin never lost sight that the ultimate objective was the overthrow of the Czar and establishing a socialist state in place of the incipient capitalist system which was developing in Russia at that time. Similarly Trotsky took the leadership of the St. Petersburg Soviet during the general strike and revolution of 1905, but never deluded himself into believing only a few reforms were all that was needed. He tried to extend the general strike into other areas and precipitate a revolution which would overthrow the Czar. Unfortunately, the 1905 revolution was crushed by the Czar, although it frightened him enough to make a few reforms in the system.

Who cares what your dictionary says? 26.Mar.2004 14:51


Dictionaries are published by corporations for money. They also have a false definition of "anarchism" in them. Burn you dictionary.

politics as possible 26.Mar.2004 15:21


Thanks for the post. I won't ask you to as arielle says to "..throw away your white mans dictionary first---," I'm not a racist. But there is only one system call it earth, humanity, call it life. Within it are subsets which in order to survive or at times almost fain existence, interact. The only way to work from outside the system is to stand naked on the Moon, but be quick. From talk radio to IndyMedia no one seeks consensus just cat calls and cat fights in a dog eat dog world. There isn't going to be a revolution it was cancelled in Detroit in 1968 for a baseball game.

Until the people - you know the ones driving the bus, riding the bus, on a bike avoiding the bus, in a car blocking the bus, or in a building watching the traffic actually get involved nothing well change but freedom's memory.

I have yet to meet anyone on the far left I could trust to run an automated pumping station. Swim in the main stream the water on the edges is still and stagnate. On his first show this coming Wednesday AL Franken will reach more people than IndyMedia can in weeks. Just for the real slow - IndyMedia is maybe the best technical event in politics since the flyer. But it is without any question part of the system, byte by byte there are those who may claim otherwise. Al's show will also be funning. Like it or not we only get to survive by working together. That is why division is so important to those who want total control.

My $.02 worth 26.Mar.2004 18:34


I sort of say I'm a "wannabe revolutionary", and there's not much other than wannabe's in the US at this time. And there won't be, until a certain critical mass of revolutionaries is reached.

Regarding working within the system, how can one not? I suppose I could go live in a cave in the mountains somewhere and try to be completely self-sufficient. But that's nothing but pure escapism. Recall what I just said about the lack of a critical mass -- that underscores a need to do organization and outreach, which implies living and interacting those living within the system. Which means living within the system myself.

Or maybe you mean the whole electoral politics debate. Perhaps the best take on that I've seen is at  http://www.dontjustvote.com/, where they mention the flipside to the old radical canard "If voting could change anything, they'd make it illegal": If not voting could change anything, they'd make that illegal, too. Really, how much of a drain on my time is it to spend an hour or so coloring in ovals on a mail-in ballot?

And anyhow, it's a synergy, not a dichotomy. Just look at the squatter movement in Europe: the presence of center-left governments that prosecute squatters less aggressively opens up all sorts of opportunities for the squatter movement. And when such governments lose power, the opportunities disappear and the movement dwindles.

And as far as "jili's" canard:"I have yet to meet anyone on the far left I could trust to run an automated pumping station," I think that just goes to show how few people on the "far left" (by which I take it to mean, "further left than I, jili, personally feel comfortable with) you've met. I also sense in your comments a whiff of the standard projection so many liberals engage in ("you have to realize that you radicals don't know it all and there's more than one way, so why aren't you working with us liberals, who by the way are doing things the only workable and morally correct way").


xyzzy 26.Mar.2004 18:49


I hate to criticize anyone but my name is jlii four fucking characters two of the letters are repeated. Stay away from pumping stations.

jlii 26.Mar.2004 19:14


"I hate to criticize anyone..."

I rather suspect you enjoy it a great deal.

And while we're on the subject of criticizing typographical errors, I'll point out that the correct spelling is "Indymedia" (no BiCapitalization).

You're welcome.


XyZzy 26.Mar.2004 19:44


you're too clever for me. sheep tight.

L.O.L. 26.Mar.2004 22:09

politics as possible

I thought I was cool --- but you people blow my mind.

Interestingly enough... 26.Mar.2004 22:45


"If not voting could change anything, they'd make that illegal, too."

...in Australia it is legally mandatory to vote. In other words, it is illegal NOT to vote. They realize that they can't claim that they are representing "the will of the people" when precious few people are voting. They avoided the spectre of illegitimacy by making NOT voting illegal.

xyzzy is right; change requires multiple tactics in order to be effective. Political violence provides the threat that forces the government to work with peaceful activists in order to make change that will placate those mean ole revolutionaries ready to destroy things or people. Every real reform in the US was due to non-electoral politics pressure that forced the government to work to find some way of ameliorating the situation enough that at least the pressure on officials would go away.