“No ideas. No revolution.” –Crane Brinton
Educational work comes in many forms: books, bookstores, infoshops, discussion groups, web sites, videos, theater, music, graffiti, stickers, flyers, posters, informational picketing….. The list goes on, and a lot of people spend a lot of time on it.
But it can be frustrating; it’s difficult to quantify the effects of educational work beyond the number of hits on web sites, number of books sold, etc. Because of this, some militant types criticize educational work as “useless,” “all talk, no action,” or even “cowardly.” In their eyes, the only real revolutionary action lies in confrontation—in general, the more violent the better—with the authorities, especially the police.
Neglecting the condescending, reductionist, and macho nature of this all-action approach, and its conspicuous lack of success, let’s look at whether it has any validity.
One reason that many people become impatient with educational work is that the immediate payoffs from doing it are few and far between, and it’s often unglamorous. It’s entirely possible to spend one’s life in the background doing educational work and to have nothing tangible to show for it.
As an example, a friend of ours has spent nearly four decades working as the unpaid, de facto manager of an anarchist bookstore. During that time, the store has sold hundreds of thousands of books and pamphlets, has served as a free meeting place for innumerable discussion and organizing groups, and has spawned many other projects. Yet the revolution hasn’t happened in our friend’s lifetime. So, have the thousands of hours he’s spent doing unpaid educational work been a waste? Those who favor the all-action confrontational approach would say “yes.” I’d say “no.”
One obvious thing confrontational types overlook is that those engaged in educational work almost invariably advocate other kinds of political/social change activities as well as education, and often engage in them. Virtually no one advances the view that educational work in itself is enough to bring revolutionary change.
Another obvious thing confrontational types overlook is that educational work (often in conjunction with nonviolent direct action and, sometimes, even electoral strategies) can lead to incremental reforms. Often these reforms are of the ten-steps-forward-nine-steps-back type, as with reproductive rights, and sometimes they come more suddenly, as with the accelerating movement to end drug prohibition. Again, virtually no one argues that such reforms will bring revolutionary change. Such reforms do, however, tend to make people’s lives better in the here and now, and every step toward greater freedom tends to delegitimize coercive authority.
But the most obvious thing that those who dismiss educational work miss is that thought precedes action. In insurrectionary situations, one of the key questions—very probably the key question—is what ideas, what beliefs, are in the heads of the people in the streets?
Do they still hold the old beliefs in civil and religious authority? Do they still believe that such authority is “inevitable” and that they (and everyone else) should be subject to it? Do they still think that all that’s needed is “better” people at the top? Do they still believe in hierarchy and competition-based economics?
Or have they rejected capitalism and religion but still believe in coercive authority, and simply want to give it to a new “revolutionary” government?
Or have they (at least a sizable minority) rejected hierarchy and coercion in all their forms and want to build a new society based on voluntary cooperation, mutual aid, egalitarian distribution of wealth and labor, and direct democracy?
These are crucial questions, and the answers to them in large part determine the outcomes of revolutionary uprisings.
Look no further than the Iranian “revolution” to see the results of a mass revolt in which a large majority of those taking part held reactionary beliefs, and still accepted religious, governmental, and capitalist authority. Look no further than the Russian “revolution” to see the results of a revolt in which the majority of those in the streets had little political consciousness or experience, but retained faith in authority, and so allowed the bolsheviks to hijack their revolution.
Look to Spain (1936–1939) for a real revolution. There, the Spanish anarcho-syndicalists had engaged in decades of mass union organizing and educational work prior to the outbreak of the revolution. They abolished government and capitalism, and brought workplace democracy, community democracy, and egalitarian economics to millions of Spaniards in large regions of Spain. That they were stabbed in the back by the Spanish Communists and Soviet Union and crushed by the combined forces of Spanish, German, and Italian fascism does not diminish their achievements.
And those achievements point to an important lesson: thought precedes action, and the content of thoughts determines actions.
Educational work in itself is not enough to produce revolution. But without it, no revolution will succeed.