Wednesday, April 7, 2010

What books can't do

Revolution runs on the engine of action. Revolution is not, as Mao reminded us, a tea party. It is not a talk shop. It is also not a reading room.

But it does require revolutionary consciousness. How is consciousness changed?

Consciousness changes in various ways and at varied tempos, now in slow increments and now at high velocity. However, the main and most important location for changing consciousness is the living struggle. Being determines consciousness, and there's nothing like finding your hungry, tired, sweaty self thrust toward the flashpoint of the class struggle for finding your sluggish, confused, intimidated mind refreshed and revived, your eyes whose vision had been blinkered suddenly opened wide. If you've ever been on strike, as I have three times, you have no doubt experienced this phenomenon firsthand. As Lenin wrote, a strike is a microcosm of revolution, a school or training ground. On the picket line it's a beautiful thing to watch workers who had days or weeks before been stolid, sullen, fatalistic, settled, seem to wake up, look around, understand. There's a nearly audible click as a new perception of reality comes into play.

Thirty years ago this coming summer, I was one of the leaders of a six-week strike of public transportation workers in Ann Arbor, Michigan. One of the great moments of that very difficult struggle came on a morning early in the walkout when the top management tried to drive in to the HQ through our picket lines. They had all come together in one car hoping to shoot through and get in to their offices. The strikers blocked their car. Surrounded it. Grabbed it, shook and rocked it, waving picket signs, chanting our demands, while inside the bosses froze in terror. Remember, no cell phones back then. They couldn't call for help. It was just us and them, and at least in my memory little to no police presence, and the bosses were convinced, you could see it in their faces, that we were about to smash the windshield, reach in and grab them, beat them bloody or worse. For some reason we did not. We contented ourselves with a nonviolent display of our power. Our superior numbers. Our rage. It sure was fun scaring the bosses, but in my opinion the most important effect of that excellent confrontation was to be seen not on their faces but on those of the strikers. They shone with determination, strength and class pride.

Our potential as workers, as the people who make everything run and can bring everything to a halt as we literally had by refusing to drive or service the buses, had suddenly that summer day come clear for us all. Not as theory. In action.

There's not a book in the world that can match a week on strike for the power to shift a worker's mind, enlarge a worker's understanding. What use, then, are books? Especially those of a fictional persuasion?

To be continued.