RETC was written in 1974. As revolutionaries Grace and Jimmy explored, after the 1967 rebellion, violence and the role of rebellion and revolution… It chides the left for it Alinsky style of struggle and protest and reform with a more visionary organizing idea of what it means to be a human being in the 20th and now the 21st century. As we strive toward a beloved community, we hope these ideas will give you food for thought and action beyond protest. Transcending the violence / violations of past, making a new moment into a movement for The Next American Revolution and New American dream. See our statement A New Moment.
|REVOLUTION AND EVOLUTION
IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
BY JAMES AND GRACE LEE BOGGS
|CHAPTER ONE – REVOLUTION AND EVOLUTION|
“This concept of the relation between revolutionary ideas and
revolutionary practice is very different from that which is held by
most militants in the United States, and especially young militants. In
their impatience they see the relation between theory and practice as
an antagonistic one. What they call “practice” is activism: “Enough
of this talk, let’s do something even if it’s wrong.” They have no
concept of the flow from revolutionary theory to revolutionary
practice and then back again to enriched theory through the
evaluation of systematic practice.
New ideas come out of reflection upon past experiences. They do
not come from out of the sky. Nor do they come from just reacting to
what someone or the system does to you. The process of reflection is
as important as the experiences themselves because in the reflection
lies the possibility of something new and original.
As human beings concerned with revolutionary social change, we
must have a philosophy of revolution. That is to say, we must have
some very fundamental ideas about what a revolution means to the
continuing advance of humanity.
To get ourselves into the proper setting for thinking about what a
revolution is, we have to begin with some fundamental questions.
Once you begin to think, that is, once you pause in your many
activities, which to one degree or another have been only reactions,
and start to use your mind, then it is crucial which questions you ask.
What is a revolution? How do you project the notion of
revolution? Today, as we look or listen to the mass media, we are
being given its concept of revolution. Its concept is inevitably ours as
well until we have examined and repudiated it.
There is an urgent necessity today to combat the widespread
tendency, propagated by the mass media, to think of revolution in
terms of a single tactical event or episode, as a D-Day confrontation
or shoot-out between the violence of the state and the violence of the
oppressed. The idea which most of us have of revolution, encouraged
by the FBI as well, is that of barricades, a Wild West shoot-out, an
assault upon a police headquarters or even hijacking an airplane or
robbing a bank. Most people, including most militants, think of a
revolution in terms of “Instant Revolution” rather than in terms of a
protracted struggle. Revolution to them is one confrontation after
16 James and Grace Lee Boggs
another. They have not stopped to wonder about the advance in
human evolution which is the only justification for a revolution and
which can only be achieved when the great masses of the people at
the bottom of a society make a tremendous leap forward in their own
To understand what a revolution is, we must be very clear about
what a revolution is not. The first step in defining anything is
differentiation. A revolution is not the same as a rebellion or an
insurrection or a revolt or a coup d’etat.
A rebellion is an attack upon existing authority by members of an
oppressed group with no intention on the part of the rebels to take
state power. It is usually spontaneous.
An insurrection is a concentrated attack upon existing authority by
members of an oppressed group, usually with the intention of taking
power, if only temporarily, during the course of revolutionary
struggles or at the culmination of a process of revolutionary struggle.
A revolt is an organized attempt to seize power, usually by a
section of the armed forces, without prior organization of the masses
in struggle and without any clear set of social objectives.
A coup d’e’tat is the successful overthrow of existing authority in
one audacious stroke, usually by a section of the armed forces.
Another name for a coup d’etat is a putsch.
All these are single events, limited in time as well as in target and
objective. Each has distinct characteristics although the line between
them is not always rigid, and a particular event may take on the
characteristics of more than one of these categories. The first two,
rebellion and insurrection, may take place in the course of revolu-
tionary struggle, but they do not constitute revolution.
Rebellion is a stage in the development of revolution, but it is not
revolution. It is an important stage because it represents the
“standing up,” the assertion of their humanity on the part of the
oppressed. Rebellions inform both the oppressed and everybody else
that a situation has become intolerable. They establish a form of
communication among the oppressed themselves and at the same
time open the eyes and ears of people who have been blind and deaf
to the fate of their fellow citizens. Rebellions break the threads that
have been holding the system together and throw into question the
legitimacy and the supposed permanence of existing institutions.
They shake up old values so that relations between individuals and
Revolution and Evolution 17
between groups within the society are unlikely ever to be the same
again. The inertia of the society has been interrupted.
Only by understanding what a rebellion accomplishes can we see
its limitations. A rebellion disrupts the society, but it does not
provide what is necessary to establish a new social order.
In a rebellion the oppressed are reacting to what has been done to
them. Therefore rebellions are issue-oriented. They tend to be
negative, to denounce and expose the enemy without providing a
positive vision of a new future. They also tend to be limited to a
particular locality, or to a Particular group-workers, blacks, women,
chicanos. For all these reasons the time span of a rebellion tends to
be limited–usually to a few days or a few weeks.
When those in rebellion talk about power, they are employing the
rhetoric of revolution without the substance. In fact, they are simply
Protesting their condition. They see themselves and call on others to
see them as victims and the other side as villains. They do not yet see
themselves as responsible for reorganizing the society, which is what
revolutionary social forces must do in a revolutionary period. Hence
a rebellion begins with the feeling by the oppressed that “we can
change the way things are,” but it usually ends up by saying “they
ought to do this and they ought to do that.” So that while a rebellion
generally begins with the rebels believing in their right to determine
their own destiny, it usually ends up with the rebels feeling that their
destiny is, in fact, determined by others.
It is very hard for those who have been oppressed to get beyond
the stage of asking others to do things for them. It is particularly
difficult in the United States. The Welfare State and the abundance
created by exploitation of other countries and by advanced technol-
ogy have made possible a vast apparatus of social workers and
welfare workers whose economic well-being depends on expanding
the agencies for helping the oppressed. This country has also had the
wealth to create a vast network of programs by which the oppressed
are pacified and the most militant leaders are rewarded with
high-paying jobs in community projects.
It is hard to go beyond rebellion to revolution in this country
because of the widespread belief that revolutions can be made as
simply and instantly as one makes coffee. Therefore the tendency is
to engage in acts of adventurism or confrontation which the rebels
believe will bring down the system quickly. It is always much easier
18 James and Grace Lee Boggs
for the oppressed to undertake an adventuristic act on impulse than
to undertake a protracted revolutionary struggle. A protracted
revolutionary struggle requires that the oppressed masses acquire
what they never start out with–confidence in their ability to win a
revolution. Without that confidence, the tendency of many militants
is toward martyrdom, in the hope that their death may at least
become an inspiration to others.
In a period of sustained rebellion such as the present, the
oppressed begin to feel the need for some philosophy, some general
body of ideas to bind them together and enable them to make an
appeal to others. Since it is not easy to create a philosophy of
revolution, their first efforts in this direction are usually very
idealistic, romantic or escapist.
In the United States today most militants refer constantly to “the
struggle,” implying that they are engaged in a revolutionary struggle
whose importance is so obvious that only a reactionary would raise
questions. Most of them think of revolution as a “Day of Reckoning,”
when those who have been exploited or oppressed (the “good guys”)
wipe out those who have exploited them (the idle rich, the capitalists,
the “bad guys”) in a sudden angry upheaval. By some miracle, these
angry masses are assumed to have been imbued with all the moral
and political virtues and qualities necessary to create a new society.
This metaphysical concept of revolution as miracle is closely linked
with the tendency to think of revolution as a spontaneous, unpredict-
able act of god or of other forces outside human control–something
like a forest fire or earthquake.
This scenario has not only been encouraged by the mass media but
by romantic historians who spend their lives in studies of what has
already happened rather than in the creative and arduous activity of
making or leading a revolution. Few of them have even stopped to
reflect on the fact that revolutionary thinking is itself only two
hundred years old. Oppression and rebellion against oppression have
been an integral part of human history. But only in the last two
hundred years have people believed that the oppressed could not
only rise against their oppressors but go on to create a new, more
Revolutionary thinking begins with a series of illuminations. It is
not just plodding along according to a list of axioms. Nor is it leaping
from peak to peak. Revolutionary thinking has as its purpose to
Revolution and Evolution 19
discover where man/woman should be tomorrow so that we can
struggle systematically and programmatically to arouse the great
masses of the people to want to go there.
A revolution is not just for the purpose of correcting past
injustices. A revolution involves a projection of man/woman into the
future. It begins with projecting the notion of a more human human
being, i.e., a human being who is more advanced in the specific
qualities which only human beings have–creativity, consciousness
and self-consciousness, a sense of political and social responsibility.
A revolutionary period is one in which the only exit is a revolution.
Revolution is a specific way in which the evolution of man/woman is
advanced. The only justification for a revolution is that it advances
the evolution of man/woman. A revolution is a phase in the long
evolutionary process of man/woman. It initiates a new plateau, a
new threshold on which human beings can continue to develop, but
it is still situated on the continuous line between past and future. It is
the result both of long preparation and a profoundly new, a
profoundly original beginning. Without a long period for maturing,
no profound change can take place. But every profound change is at
the same time a sharp break with the past.
Man/woman is obviously at a threshold, a border, a frontier. How
should people live today? What changes are necessary in our values,
in our morality? Today we know that moral progress is not an
automatic byproduct of technological development, that in fact
economic overdevelopment exists dangerously side by side with
political and moral underdevelopment. How can we achieve the
political and moral development required to cope with the present
stage of technological development? Not by more development of
economic forces or of technology. Not simply by making what
already exists more available to more people on a more equitable
basis. Not by depending upon spontaneous rebellion of the op-
A conscious struggle, that is, a struggle governed by conscious
values, conscious goals, conscious programs and conscious persons, is
required. Yet for so long have Marxists and most radical social
scientists relegated morality and consciousness to the “super-
structure” that most radicals are hesitant even to talk about the
values that are the product of tens of thousands of years of the
cultural development of humankind.
20 James and Grace Lee Boggs
The contradictions are within man/woman, internal as well as
external. Because man/woman has crossed the threshold of reflec-
tion, and because each man and woman is a conscious individual,
there are thousands of choices which each must make, including how
and where and when he/she would like to live with his/her fellow
men and women, and how he/she will think about him/herself,
about society and about humankind.
These choices can only be posed by those who have developed the
capacity to think historically, in terms of the development of men
and women over tens of thousands of years.
Who are the antagonists in the present struggle? In the United
States today there is far more antagonism on questions of social
relations than on questions of economic relations. The conflict is not
just between rich and poor, not just between one generation and
another, but between different concepts of what a human being is
and how a human being should live. We must know what is the
principal contradiction before we can decide who is on the right side
and who is on the wrong side.
Man/womankind today needs to redefine what are appropriate
social relations. This can’t be done by a plebiscite, by counting noses,
or by any other kind of numbers game. It must be done by particular
kinds of people projecting another way to live and testing it against
certain classes, certain races, certain groups, certain people.
Clearly we are at a threshold of a new relation between necessity
and choice. But what does any American today know about necessity
or the concept of necessity? Necessity and choice used to be clearly
separate. Today the borders between the two are no longer clear.
One cannot be defined without the other. Once you accept the idea
that people are no longer dominated by necessity in the way that
they used to be, then you must see that our freedom to choose carries
with it new responsibilities.
At this point we have to ask ourselves: can a worker or a black
person be exonerated from responsibility because of class or race or
because he/she has been and is oppressed? Are the ideas, the
contributions of upper-class persons to be rejected out of hand
because of their class origins? Or are ideas, actions, to be judged on
their merits, in relation to how they contribute to the advancement
Revolution and Evolution 21
How should people spend their lives? Is it sufficient to say that
capitalism is responsible for the present state of affairs and that we
are all its victims? Or is it necessary to develop new conceptions of
appropriate social and human relations and then the concrete
programs of struggle necessary to realize these conceptions?
What is the relation between wants and thoughts? Between wants
and needs? Between masses and revolutionists? Masses have wants
which are not necessarily related to human needs. Revolutionists
must have thoughts about human needs. They cannot just rely on the
spontaneous outburst of the masses over their wants. A revolutionist
must absorb and internalize the lives, the passions, and the
aspirations of great revolutionary leaders and not just those of the
masses. It is true that revolutionary leadership can only come from
Persons in close contact with masses in movement and with a
profound conviction of the impossibility of profound change in
society without the accelerated struggle of the masses. But leaders
cannot get their thoughts only from the movement of the masses.
A revolution begins with those who are revolutionary exploring
and enriching their notion of a “new man/woman” and projecting
the notion of this “new man/woman” into which each of us can
The first transformation begins with those who recognize and are
ready to assume the responsibility for reflecting on our experiences
and the experiences of other revolutionary men and women. Thus
the first transformation can begin with our own re-thinking. That is
why we believe it is so crucial that before we undertake to project
the perspectives for an American revolution, we review what
previous revolutions of our epoch have meant in the evolution of
man/womankind. As we study these revolutions, the first thing we
shall learn is that all the great revolutionists have projected a concept
of revolution to the masses. They did not just depend on the masses
or the movement of their day for their idea of what should be done.
They evaluated the state of the world and their own society. They
internalized the most advanced ideas about human development
which had been arrived at on a world scale. They projected a vision
of what a revolution would mean in their own country. They
analyzed the different social forces within their country carefully to
ascertain which forces could be mobilized to realize this vision. They
22 James and Grace Lee Boggs
carried on ideological struggle against those who were not ready to
give leadership to the masses or who were trying to lead them in the
wrong direction. Only then did they try to lead their own masses and
every other possible sector of the society in struggle.
We review these revolutions not as scholars but as revolutionists,
for the help that they can give us in clarifying the perspectives for a
revolution in the United States. We are very much aware that our
problems are very different from those of people in Russia, China,
Vietnam, and Guinea-Bissau. But by reviewing these revolutions we
can view the revolutions that have taken place in different parts of
the world in our epoch as a historical whole, a continuous process of
human liberation which advances one step at a time and whose forms
move from country to country, from people to people. We can gain
some insight into how far world humanity has already advanced
towards the conscious creation by men and women of a new
expanded human identity. We can draw some universal lessons from
particular revolutions which will contribute to the next advance-
ment. And we can begin to appreciate the protracted commitment,
the refusal to be confined by dogma, the creative boldness, the
readiness to practice new ideas as well as to compel others to choose
between opposing roads, the tireless struggle against the new
contradictions and obstacles which never cease to appear–all of
which are the awesome responsibility of revolutionary leadership.
As we struggle in the second part of this book to understand our
choices in the United States, we must not allow our thoughts to be
paralyzed by fear of repression and fascism. One must always think
realistically about the dangers, but in thinking about the counter-rev-
olution a revolutionist must be convinced that it is a “paper tiger.”
Revolution and counter-revolution both involve social upheaval,
but they are not equal opposites. The revolution creates the future;
the counter-revolution seeks to maintain the present or restore the
past. The counter-revolution is invariably anti-historical. It narrows
and limits human beings, whereas a revolution expands and enriches
An American revolution will enable the American people to renew
and enlarge their sense of their own humanity. It will give them a
new sense of time, of duration, of development, and of progress. It
will instill in them a new love both for themselves and for men and
women everywhere as they begin to see themselves as an integral
Revolution and Evolution 23
part of the history of all man/womankind. An American revolution
will give Americans real and continuing opportunities to make
responsible choices-opportunities which at the present time they do
not even know they lack.”
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