(Sheldon S. Wolin, died on Oct 21, 2015 at the age of 93) Journalist Chris Hedges and political philosopher Sheldon Wolin conclude their interview with a discussion on the problems of revolution and power
CHRIS HEDGES, PULITZER-PRIZE WINNING JOURNALIST: Welcome to our interview with Professor Sheldon Wolin, our final segment, where we are going to talk about revolution.
When you have a system of totalitarianism, in this case inverted totalitarianism, when you have effectively fragmented and destroyed the notion of the public, when you have institutions that define themselves as democratic and yet have abandoned civic virtue and the common good and in fact harnessed their authority and their power to the interests of corporations, which is about creating a neo-feudalism, a security and surveillance state, enriching a small, global oligarchic elite, perpetuating demilitarization of the society and superpower itself, which defines itself through military prowess, is that a point at which we should begin to discuss revolution?
SHELDON WOLIN, PROF. EMERITUS POLITICS, PRINCETON: I think it is, but I think the proper emphasis should be on discussing it carefully, that is to say, I mean by carefully not timidly, but carefully in the sense that we would really have to be breaking new ground. And I think it’s because of the nature of the forces we’ve been talking about that constitute a challenge, I think, the like of which hasn’t happened before, and that we’ve got to be very sure, because of the interlocked character of modern society, that we don’t act prematurely and don’t do more damage than are really justifiable, so that I think revolution is one of those words that I’m not so sure we shouldn’t find a synonym that would capture its idea of significant, even radical change, but which somehow manages, I think, to discard the physical notions of overthrow and violence that inevitably it evokes in the modern consciousness. And I don’t have a solution to that, but I think that that’s required. I think the idea of revolution simply carries too much baggage, and the result of that is you’re forced to fight all sorts of rearguard actions to say what you didn’t mean because of the overtones and implications that revolution seems to have to the modern ear. So I think we do have to start striving for a new kind of vocabulary that would help us express what we mean by radical change without simply seeming to tie ourselves to the kind of previous notions of revolution.
I think the contemporary condition–as I’m sure Marx would have been the first to acknowledge–is quite without precedent in terms of the concentration of capitalist power and of the relationship between capitalism and the state. It’s always been there. But now we’re talking about aggregates of power the like of which the world has never seen, and a world that we have now come to see is in the throes of being integrated by those powers.
So I think we really have to know when we’re being trapped by our own language and need to at crucial points hold up that language for scrutiny and say, maybe it needs to be rethought in a different direction or needs to be modified in a serious way, so that we’re really making contact with what the world actually is.
HEDGES: And yet, in the archaic sense of the word, it’s about a cycle. Revolution is about coming back–
HEDGES: –in this sense, coming back to participatory democracy that we’ve lost.
HEDGES: And the popular notion of revolution, which you correctly point out does not bear much resemblance to the historical reality of revolutions, in the sense that most revolutions, although violence are certainly part of it, most revolutions are finally nonviolent, in the sense that you have the armed forces, in the case of the Cossacks going to Petrograd, in the case of in the Paris commune, where the national army refuses to–turns in their arms and creates the commune in 1871 in Paris, even in contemporary situations, such as the downfall of the Shah in Iran in 1979 and the army refuses to fight, it is about converting intellectually, morally, ethically, those within the power structure who realize its decay, its corruption, its repression and no longer are willing to sacrifice for it.
WOLIN: Well, I guess I’m not quite certain. I’m not quite certain in the sense that I think your formulation would rely more than I would on trying to persuade the powers that be and the structure to change course or modify their behavior and modify their beliefs, and I don’t think that’s possible. Or if it’s possible, it’s not possible on a large scale. There might be deviants and rebels who would. But I really think it’s–I mean, to have the form that I think would really justify calling it revolution, I think it has to be generated and shaped outside the power structure, and I think because what you’re trying to do is to enlist and educate groups and individuals who have not had a political education or experience of much of any kind, and so that your task is compounded. For those who think the basic problem is just seize power, you’re still confronted by that in that formula with a population that’s basically unchanged, and that you then face the kind of cruel choices of forcing them to change so that they can support your structure, so that the real, I think, really difficult challenge is to accompany the attempt to gain power with an equally strong emphasis on public education that makes it, so to speak, a potentially responsible repository of that power.
HEDGES: Now, I would totally agree that it has to be formed outside of power, but I’m wondering whether once you can create a revolutionary ideology and a force that contests power–one of the secrets to revolutionary successes is that that message, which is what Václav Havel would call “living in truth”, that message, once it penetrates the lower levels of power–and I’m thinking of, like, the police or the case–those foot soldiers that are tasked with protecting an elite that they may very well view is venal–whether that can create or in revolutionary society creates enough paralysis within the structures of power that you can bring it down. And I covered the fall of East Germany, where in the fall of 1989, Eric Honecker, who had been in power for 19 years as the dictator, sent down an elite paratroop division to Leipzig, because at that point they had 70,000 people massing in the streets. And when that paratroop division refused to fire on the crowd, the whole apparatus of the Stasi state crumbled almost at such a dizzying speed, none of us could keep track of it, and Honecker was out of power within a week. So I’m asking whether that–I think you’re right, of course, that all of those revolutionary forces have to be formed outside of the structures of power, but whether finally in some sense appealing, if you want to call it, to the conscience of those at the low level, though people who are like the Cossacks, who come in and are told to quell the bread riots, and instead fraternize with the crowds, whether that is, in your eyes, a kind of fundamental moment by which a power elite can be removed.
WOLIN: I think there’s something very much to be said for that. And, of course, one wants to avoid apocalyptic notions. But I think what we’re dealing with is the ability of democrats (small d) to sustain the kind of political education in such a way that you concentrate upon those lower echelons of power and get them to think differently about their role. It’s a very touchy subject, because it leaves you open to accusations of promoting disloyalty among the police, say, or among the army or what have you. And in a sense that’s true. But I think that nonetheless, without trying to, so to speak, baldly subvert the role of those powers in society, it is possible to reach them and to create a climate where they themselves have to come to grips with it. And I think that’s a task that’s arduous, and it’s difficult, and it’s even a little dangerous in our present age.
HEDGES: Would you–if you look at those revolutionary philosophers–and we could perhaps even include Plato–they always talk about the creation of an elite, what Lenin would call a revolutionary vanguard, Machiavelli would call his republican conspirators, Calvin would call his saints. Do you see that as a fundamental component of revolution?
WOLIN: To some extent I do. I would want to, of course, naturally, avoid words like elite, but I do think, given the way that ordinary people become exhausted by the simple task of living, working, and trying to sustain families and neighborhoods in a way that just takes all of their energy, I do think it calls for some kind of group, or class, you could even call them, who would undertake the kind of continuous political work of educating, criticizing, trying to bring pressure to bear, and working towards a revamping of political institutions. And I don’t mean to imply that there should be a disconnect between that group and ordinary people. I do think it requires that you recognize that such a group is necessary, in that the second task is to make sure that there are open lines of communication, of contact, of meetings between leaders and the people, such that there’s never a sense of estrangement or alienation, such that leading groups feel they’re free to pursue the good as they see it and for the good of the masses who do not.
HEDGES: Do you worry about Bakunin’s critique of the Bolsheviks, that power is the problem, and that once these people, who may be very well intentioned–Trotsky would be an example: pre-revolutionary Trotsky, postrevolutionary Trotsky, at least in his writings, was very democratic; once in power, he was Lenin’s iron fist. And I wonder whether Bakunin’s not right that power’s the problem, in that sense, and creating an elite is a very dangerous move, or a vanguard or whatever.
WOLIN: Yeah, I think it is. And I think that our situation’s somewhat different from what Trotsky and the others faced, in the sense that there are openings in our system of governance and of public discourse that do provide an opportunity, if you’re willing to work hard enough, to get dissident voices out into the public realm, so that the need for force, violence, and so on, it seems to me, is simply unnecessary, that as long as we have constitutional guarantees that still mean something and that we have free forms of communication that still mean something, I think that we’re obligated to play by those rules, because they do allow us to disseminate the kind of message we want to disseminate, and that the need to sort of circumvent them or in some sense subvert them, it seems to me, is self-defeating.
HEDGES: And yet climate change has created a narrowing window of opportunity if we are going to survive as a species. An unfettered, unregulated corporate capitalism, which commodifies everything, from human beings to the natural world–and this comes out of Marx–without any kind of constraints–and it has no self-imposed limits–it will exploit those forces until exhaustion or collapse. And we are now seeing the ecosystem itself teetering on collapse.
WOLIN: Yeah. No, it’s true. But I don’t really see any other solution than to really put your chips where an enlightened public would take a stand. And I think the problem, to some extent, is that there are enlightened publics in this country, but there’s no concerted general movement which can profess to represent a large body of opinion that’s opposed to these kind of developments you’ve just described.
And I think it’s the–there’s a certain lack of organization, not in the sense of following previous prescriptions of organization, but of trying to find methods whereby power, ordinary people and their power, can be brought to bear in ways that will deter and dissuade those who are in a position to influence these decisions, because time, as we all know, is running out, and that if we continue along the same course, I’m afraid the result is not simply going to be environmental disaster; it’s also going to, I think, feed the–in an unhealthy way, it will feed an outcry for really forceful government, and not in a necessarily democratic way.
HEDGES: And yet, if we don’t respond, it is in essence collective suicide.
WOLIN: It is. It is indeed.
HEDGES: Now, Weber has a very bleak view in the age of bureaucracy. And he actually talks about the banishment of mystery. And as a former theologian, that is really the banishment of the sacred: nothing has an intrinsic value; everything only has a monetary value. Weber, like Rawls, is scathing about allowing a capitalist class to even ever assume power. And Weber writes in Politics as a Vocation, which you cite in Politics and Vision, that the very figure that he holds up as a political hero, who resembles the classical hero, is some way–and holds on to civic virtue, can never overcome what the Greeks would call fourtoúna, and that finally you live in a world where you have the necessary passion of those who would carry the common good within them thrown up against this massive monolith, this impersonal monolith of bureaucracy. And I wonder if–and because that is the reality, a reality that in many ways Weber discovered–and he, like–I think if you go back to classical writers like Augustine, would argue–and you know Weber better than I–but would argue that in some sense–or at least my reading of it is that in some sense he’s calling for those of us who care about the common good and civic virtue to stand up in the face of a very bleak reality. And, again, Augustine would do this while saying that in the end you can never create the kingdom of God, the city of man, city of God, and yet it finally becomes just a moral imperative. Whether you can actually succeed or not succeed (I don’t know if that’s a fair characterization of Weber) is not really the question. The question is: how do you retain your own moral integrity in the face of these horrifically destructive forces? And in some ways the question is not: can we succeed? And reading Weber, I think in some ways he would say you probably can’t, but that you must resist anyway.
HEDGES: I think that’s a fair reading of him. I think that for Weber, the truly important civic virtues were just exactly the ones that would assert themselves at a time when basic institutional values were at stake and human values were at stake, and that you don’t win, or you win rarely, and if you win, it’s often for a very short time, and that that’s why politics is a vocation for Weber. It’s not an occasional undertaking that we assume every two years or every four years when there’s an election; it’s a constant occupation and preoccupation. And the problem, as Weber saw it, was to understand it not as a partisan kind of education in the politicians or political party sense, but as in the broad understanding of what political life should be and what is required to make it sustainable, and so that he’s calling for a certain kind of understanding that’s very different from what we think about when we associate political understanding with how do you vote or what party do you support or what cause do you support. Weber’s asking us to step back and say what kind of political order and the values associated with it that it promotes are we willing to really give a lot for, including sacrifice. And I think that it’s that distinction between the temporary and the transient and what’s truly of more enduring significance that sets Weber off against the group he hated, the relativists.
HEDGES: He’s calling us to a life of meaning.
WOLIN: Yeah. Yeah.
HEDGES: Which you have exemplified.
HEDGES: Well, thank you very much, Professor Wolin.
WOLIN: My pleasure.
HEDGES: It’s been a tremendous honor. You’re–have had a tremendous influence on myself and many other–Cornel West and many, many others, and not only because of the power of your intellect, but the power of your integrity.
WOLIN: Well, thank you. I’ve enjoyed it very much.
HEDGES: Thank you very much.
WOLIN: I thank you for the opportunity to talk.
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