A few weeks ago I noticed the idea of a general strike arising from the discussion among those participating in the occupation movements throughout the country. Such discussion became something close to reality in response to police violence in Oakland. This is exactly what I have been thinking for months now—that the goal of any relevant social movement, now or ever, should be to move a significant percentage of the population toward a general strike.
When I said as much during a brainstorming session at the liberal institution where I work, I felt perhaps I was going out on a limb. I know I am on the fringe, far to the left of what is considered “reasonable” or “realistic,” and I don’t expect a welcome reception when I bring my ideas up, so I was surprised to find that some were actually enthusiastic about it. Others bristled, but what the is the point of dreaming if one cannot express one’s dreams?
One of the clearest blueprints I can think of for revolution is Alexander Berkman’s “The ABCs of Anarchism.”
In it he lays out a basic and powerful explanation of what anarchism is and then explains how to make it happen. His prescription for ending capitalism is to just stop it, literally. Stop selling our labor, stop doing the work that makes others rich. It is a simple idea, and yet when many folks think of “revolution” they think of the guillotine, Lenin, Mao, Che Guevara, or the minutemen of Lexington and Concord. Folks picture violence and suffering, and have associations of revolution with death. But Berkman distinguishes between a political revolution–the American Revolution, for example–and a social revolution. He writes, “a revolution that aims to abolish the entire system of wage slavery must also do away with the power of one class to oppress another…As such it would have to fight not only government and capitalism, but it would also meet with the opposition of popular ignorance and prejudice, of those who believe in government and capitalism.” (pg. 353)
Berkman dismisses as outdated the idea of a violent political revolution against capital: “How do you imagine a revolution could be fought in these days of armored tanks, poison gas, and military planes? Do you believe that the unarmed masses and their barricades could withstand high-power artillery and bombs thrown upon them from flying machines? Could labor fight the military forces of government and capital?” (p. 369) He goes on to say: “Is time to be done with this obsolete idea of revolution.” Mind you, this was in 1929; he could not have foreseen the obscene weapons of our era.
Instead, Berkman proposes that working people can wield another kind of power:
The strength of labor is not on the field of battle. It is in the shop, in the mine and factory. There lies its power that no army in the world can defeat, no human agency conquer.
In other words, the social revolution can take place only by means of the General Strike. The General Strike, rightly understood and thoroughly carried out, is the social revolution. (p. 369)
He explains in very simple words how our belief in this system perpetuates it:
Did you ever ask yourself how it happens that government and capitalism continue to exist in spite of all the evil and trouble they are causing in the world?
If you did, then your answer must have been that it is because the people support those institutions, and that they support them because they believe in them.
That is the crux of the whole matter: present-day society rests on the belief of the people that it is good and useful. It is founded on the idea of authority and private ownership. It is ideas that maintain conditions. Government and capitalism are the forms in which the popular ideas express themselves. Ideas are the foundation; the institutions are the house built upon it.
A new social structure must have a new foundation, new ideas at its base. However you may change the form of an institution, its character and meaning will remain the same as the foundation on which it is built. Look closely at life and you will perceive the truth of this. There are all kinds and forms of government in the world, but their real nature is the same everywhere, as their effects are the same: it always means authority and obedience.(p. 353)
Just as capital is maintained by our current ideas, so too our new world will need new ideas. Any revolution must be based on those ideas, and those ideas must first evolve.
But blind rebellion without definite object and purpose is not revolution. Revolution is rebellion become conscious of its aims. Revolution is social when it strives for a fundamental change. As the foundation of life is economics, the social revolution means the reorganization of the industrial, economic life of the country and consequently also of the entire structure of society.
But we have seen that the social structure rests on the basis of ideas, which implies that changing the structure presupposes changed ideas. In other words, social ideas must change first before a new social structure can be built.
The social revolution, therefore, is not an accident, not a sudden happening. There is nothing sudden about it, for ideas don’t change suddenly. They grow slowly, gradually, like the plant or flower. Hence the social revolution is a result, a development, which means that it is revolutionary. It develops to the point when considerable numbers of people have embraced the new ideas and are determined to put them into practice. When they attempt to do so and meet with opposition, then the slow, quiet, and peaceful social evolution becomes quick, militant, and violent. Evolution becomes revolution.
Bear in mind, then, that evolution and revolution are not two separate and different things. Still less are they opposites, as some people wrongly believe. Revolution is merely the boiling point of evolution. (p. 355)
Social revolution does not just happen one day out of nothing, it must evolve through tireless efforts to overcome old ideas and old ways of looking at the world.
The most convincing means of social change that I’ve heard of is the general strike. It does not take doing, it takes non-doing. To create an empty void in front of your eyes and stare into it. To see that the system you had thought existed naturally is but an illusion. It can be terrifying to discover that your have been depending upon an illusion your whole life. Folks walk around in delusion to survive; folks ignore the horrible things happening all the time so they can make it through the day. Stopping capitalism is like leaving an abusive lover or quitting heroin, but on a grand scale. Liberation is terrifying.
Beyond that, we have to learn new ways of talking to each other, treating each other, and living in our new world. These are enormous challenges, and though Marx, Berkman, and others bring a great analysis of politics, history, and sociology, I think a huge component often left out is personal psychology. We are social beings, but we have brains independent of each other and we each have to learn how to use our brains.
This for me is where the Buddha comes in. He doesn’t exactly bring a political, historical, or economic critique of ancient Indian society,* but he does offer a fantastic roadmap for the mind and how to use it.
Strangely enough, I do see a lot of parallels between Marx’s dialectical materialism and the cosmology of Buddhism.** Matter precedes thought, and all phenomena are matter in constant motion, constantly changing, interconnected and interdependent. Marx and the Buddha both pursued truth by investigating the contradictions in everything. They both tried to see reality as clearly as possible, without the lenses of conditioning, and to help others see it too.
Where they were alike in their means, however, their ends were vastly different. One called for social revolution, while the other called for personal, psychological revolution. Marx called on workers to overthrow the masters oppressing and exploiting them; the Buddha called on people to overthrow the oppression in their heads. I say: don’t we need both? What if we dialectically rub these two sticks together to make revolutionary fire?
I do think that to live in a better world we need to start living in better heads.
Our thinking is a result of neurological interactions, and as a matter of better efficiency our brains form pathways, so that neurons that have interacted before are more likely to do so again. This means that after we react to something in a certain way once, either by thought, emotion, or action, we are more likely to do the same again. The more you continually react in the same way, the more hard-wired your brain is to that reaction, and the harder it is to stop. I think of it as a river digging its pathway into the ground; the deeper it is, the harder it would be to change its course. We all have Grand Canyons in our brains.
This is how I see the Buddha’s view of karma, not as a metaphysical, moral boomerang, but as a clear understanding of how your brain wires itself, and how, if you are not aware, this wiring will ensnare you in a false view of yourself and your world. When you can see clearly, you think clearly, and most importantly, your actions have moral clarity.
Marx would say that there are external, historical, economic reasons for our internalized acceptance of capitalism. His writings dissect the material basis of alienation, reification, commodity fetishism, and so on. The Buddha might say, even if that is true, it does not answer the more important question: What do I do, how do I think, how do I respond RIGHT NOW? Social conditions require a social solution; psychological conditions require solutions which are personal and therefore can be more immediate. Ultimately, we need both social and psychological revolutions; they won’t necessarily happen at the same time, but they would provide positive feedback loops for each other, just as our current structures create negative ones.
The Buddha, in his Eightfold Path, laid out a very clear prescription for overcoming the so-called human condition. The most important and most basic element of the Path is meditation, which at its core it is about stopping, not doing. That is what the Buddha famously did. After seven years of pursuing multiple, rigorous methodologies, he sat down under a tree one day and kept sitting until he attained insight. It was a matter of ceasing his mind enough to create space and see the world clearly. When we achieve the same kind of vision, we can act in the world with fearlessness and moral clarity.
To strike is to bring this notion of cessation to a society at large. To stop-doing on such a large scale is terrifying. The social structures that oppress and exploit us also make us think we are dependent on them. To strike is to reject those structures; just as ceasing the mind creates space for clarity, so does shutting down the economy. From there, the world is ours.
If the workers take a notion,
They can stop all speeding trains;
Every ship upon the ocean
They can tie with mighty chains.
Every wheel in the creation,
Every mine and every mill,
Fleets and armies of the nation,
Will at their command stand still.
Joe Hill, 1914
*Though he did accept all castes and even women in his sangha, both of which were pretty radical at the time. Moreover, he made various attributed quips equating kings and other rulers with thieves.
**Mind you, I am talking about certain strains of Buddhism; that which is most, dare I say, fundamentalist in its approach to the teachings without additional cultural beliefs.