A revolution is the taking of political power by a group that represents the interests of a class or alliance of classes, substituting rule by the previously dominant class with rule by a different class or classes. The revolutions of the late eighteenth century in Europe and in the European settler societies of North America were essentially bourgeois revolutions, substituting rule by the nobility with rule by the capitalist class, although the bourgeois revolutions had ample popular participation that constituted the beginning of popular revolutions. A popular revolution is the taking of power by representatives of the popular sectors and classes. The Russian Revolution, the Chinese Revolution, the Vietnamese Revolution, the Cuban Revolution, and the Bolivarian revolutions today in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador are popular revolutions. The taking of power by the popular classes does not mark the end of the revolution, but the beginning of a new stage in the revolutionary process, in which the new governing group must seek to govern in the interests of the popular sectors and to fend off efforts to destroy it by the previously dominant class and their national and international allies.
The American Revolution was, in the final analysis, a bourgeois revolution. We have seen that it was formed and led by the American elite, consisting mostly of large merchants and landholders, who enlisted the support of the popular sectors in their anti-British cause; that during the 1770s the popular sectors had captured control of the revolutionary process at the local level and had established constitutional reforms in each of the thirteen colonies that reflected popular interests; and that the elite was able to reestablish control, reflected in the Constitution of 1787, and to forge a system of democracy that favored elite interests and was more democratic in form than in substance (“The US popular movement of 1775-77” 11/1/2013; “American Counterrevolution, 1777-87” 11/4/2013; “Balance of power” 11/5/2013).
There was a second American revolution that expressed itself in various forms during the period of 1830 to 1896, when popular sectors sought to establish democratic rights for blacks, women, and small farmers. It attained the abolition of slavery and culminated in the right to vote for women in 1919. Its high point was 1867, when constitutional amendments establishing citizenship rights for blacks were established, which were subsequently negated in practice.
From 1955 to 1974, blacks, students, women, Native Americans and Mexican Americans sought to expand the protection of political and civil rights to all citizens and to deepen the meaning of democratic rights to include social and economic rights. The anti-war movement was an important part of this third American revolution, in which anti-imperialism and identification with Third World revolutions were expressed by white middle-class students. The third American revolution, which Immanuel Wallerstein has called the Revolution of 1968, accomplished the expansion of political and civil rights to include women and people of color, but it did not result in the taking of political power by the popular sectors. The nation remains in the control of the elite, which today is a corporate and financial elite.
The Revolution of 1968 had all the necessary pieces of a successful revolution. Some understood that it was a question of taking control of the political institutions of the nation from the capitalist class and its political representatives, in order to govern in the interests of the popular classes and sectors; some understood that the revolutionary process ought to seek to protect the social and economic rights of all of the people; some understood that the revolutionary process must be anti-imperialist, and that the nation under revolutionary leadership would respect the sovereignty and self-determination of all nations; some understood that there had to be a long process of the education and formation of the consciousness of the people; and some understood that the classical revolutionary theory of Marxism had to reformulated for a different situation, including the emergence of a new middle class of educated workers and of a diversity of popular sectors in the core as well as national liberation movements in the periphery. But all of these pieces were part of a confused mix. Some thought that power could be taken by symbolic urban sabotage; some rigidly applied the Marxist concept of the industrial working class at the vanguard; and many confused a political and social revolution with rebellious behavior in regard to sex, drugs, and styles of dress and appearance. There did not emerge a charismatic leader who had the insight to synthesize the various pieces of understanding in order to formulate a coherent direction that would have the support of the people. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was possibly evolving in a direction that would have enabled him to become the revolutionary charismatic leader, a phenomenon that has occurred in successful revolutions. He had not yet arrived to be a revolutionary leader, in that he had not yet understood that it is a question of taking power. But by 1968, he had arrived at an understanding of the need to protect the social and economic rights of the people and to respect the rights of the nations and peoples of the world to self-determination and development.
When I look at the revolutions that have taken power recently in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, I ask, How did they do it? In all three cases they formulated a discourse that struck a responsive chord among the people: a connecting of people’s problems with specific policies, framed in a broader historical and global context of understanding; an unmasking of the unpatriotic and anti-popular behavior of the political elite, in spite of its popular and democratic rhetoric; and a commitment to defend the social and economic rights of the people and the dignity and sovereignty of the nation. They formed not merely movements of protest designed to pressure those in power. They developed revolutionary movements that intended to take power, and they took power legally and non-violently, utilizing bourgeois political structures of representative democracy and taking advantage of space afforded by bourgeois structures of political and civil rights.
Why don’t we do something like that in the United States? The answer, of course, is that it is not possible, for a host of reasons. I here am reminded of what the nineteenth century Cuban revolutionary José Martí said: “We must make the impossible possible.” It is a question of finding a way to overcome the various obstacles that a popular revolution in the United States confronts, for the good of the nation and for the good of humanity.
The old Marxist parties to some extent had it right: an industrial working-class vanguard that seeks to take power. But their concept was too rigid, literally applying the concept of a proletarian vanguard in spite of the fact that revolutions of the twentieth century were in practice being led by informed and committed leaders of multiple popular classes. And their concept was too Eurocentric, based on the European experience and not sufficiently informed by revolutions of the Third World. These errors are understandable in the context of their place and time. But we can avoid them today. It is possible today to form a comprehensive and universal understanding of popular revolution.
We the people of the United States have the duty to renovate and bring to fruition what our foreparents began in 1775 and renewed in 1867 and 1968: a popular revolution that seeks to take political power and to govern in accordance with the interests of the popular sectors and in a form consistent with universally proclaimed democratic values, including the protection of the social and economic rights of all persons and respect for the rights of all nations and peoples to sustainable development, self-determination, and sovereignty.
Key words: Third World, revolution, colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, democracy, national liberation, sovereignty, self-determination, socialism, Marxism, Leninism, Cuba, Latin America, world-system, world-economy, development, underdevelopment, colonial, neocolonial, blog Third World perspective, American Revolution, Revolution of 1968