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Chris Hedges: Half Right and Half Dangerously Wrong

by John Spritzler

October 29, 2013

Chris Hedges has evolved in recent years from a New York Times war correspondent who became outraged at injustices (such as Israeli ethnic cleansing of non-Jews in Palestine) supported by the U.S. government, to a fierce critic of the American ruling elite who isn't afraid to use the word "revolution" when talkng about what is necessary in the United States. Hedges's most recent article, titled "Our Invisible Revolution," makes the following points, some of which are true and some dangerously false:

1. "As long as most citizens believe in the ideas that justify global capitalism, the private and state institutions that serve our corporate masters are unassailable. When these ideas are shattered, the institutions that buttress the ruling class deflate and collapse."

2. "The battle of ideas is percolating below the surface...Popular revulsion for the ruling elite, however, is nearly universal."

3. "Revolution usually erupts over events that would, in normal circumstances, be considered meaningless or minor acts of injustice by the state. But once the tinder of revolt has piled up, as it has in the United States, an insignificant spark easily ignites popular rebellion.

4. "But it is certain now that a popular revolt is coming."

5. "Once ideas shift for a large portion of a population, once the vision of a new society grips the popular imagination, the old regime is finished."

6. "An uprising that is devoid of ideas and vision is never a threat to ruling elites. Social upheaval without clear definition and direction, without ideas behind it, descends into nihilism, random violence and chaos."

7. "Revolt is the only option left. Ruling elites, once the ideas that justify their existence are dead, resort to force. It is their final clutch at power. If a nonviolent popular movement is able to ideologically disarm the bureaucrats, civil servants and police—to get them, in essence, to defect—nonviolent revolution is possible. But if the state can organize effective and prolonged violence against dissent, it spawns reactive revolutionary violence, or what the state calls terrorism. Violent revolutions usually give rise to revolutionaries as ruthless as their adversaries. 'Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster,' Friedrich Nietzsche wrote. 'And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.'

"Violent revolutions are always tragic. I, and many other activists, seek to keep our uprising nonviolent. We seek to spare the country the savagery of domestic violence by both the state and its opponents. There is no guarantee that we will succeed, especially with the corporate state controlling a vast internal security apparatus and militarized police forces. But we must try."

Let's start by identifying the "half right" part of Hedges's article. His point #2 is right: most people are angry as hell at the ruling class. His point #3, that seemingly minor acts of injustice can provoke large scale rebellion, has certainly been true often in the past and may hold true in the future of the United States. His point #4 that a popular revolt is certainly coming in the United States may very well be true. His point #6 about the need for a vision of what should replace the status quo is true.

Now let's look at the wrong half contained in Hedges's points #1, 5 and 7.

Hedges's point #1 (and #5) about how capitalist institutions collapse when people no longer believe the ideas they are based upon and when "the vision of a new society grips the popular imagination" is almost, but not quite, true. Yes, in order to bring down the ruling class and its institutions, the public must reject the ideas that support them and have a vision of a new society. But no, a vision of a new society and public rejection of the ideas that support the ruling class and its institutions are not all that is required to make a revolution.

The other necesssary requirement is that most people must be confident that in having a revolutionary vision of a new society and rejecting the ideas of the ruling class they are part of a large majority, and not merely part of a small and therefore hopelessly weak minority. In the absence of this confidence that they are not alone, people will fail to take the required steps to make a revolution.

In the United States today, the reason there is no large and explicitly revolutionary movement is because most people, although having revolutionary aspirations personally, feel essentially alone in this regard, and therefore lack the confidence to take the concrete steps required to make a revolution, or even to create organizations with explicitly revolutionary goals. Addressing this key problem is what the Ring the Bells of Revolution campaign (see is all about.

The ruling class knows that most people don't like them and would love to see a revolution in the United States. This is why ruling class propaganda is not mainly about making people love them--a lost cause--but is rather chiefly designed to make people feel all alone in having revolutionary aspirations. The way the propaganda does this is by holding up to Americans an image (in the mass media and all officially sanctioned public discourse) of Americans devoid of any revolutionary aspirations. How many ordinary decent people in TV-land, for example, are talking about their desire for revolution? As another example, at the 7th inning stretch of the World Series baseball games, millions of TV viewers see the entire stadium join in the singing of songs like America the Beautiful with the camera focused on people in the stands waving little American flags. (Don't forget that tickets to the World Series are expensive, ranging from $783 to $3970 for the next game as I write) and thus the people in the stands are not representative of America's have-not majority.) These are just sone of many ways that the #1 Big Lie of ruling class propaganda--"If you reject the legitimacy of the ruling class's domination of our society, then you are all alone and resistance is futile"--is broadcast to Americans.

Hedges point #7 I believe is not only wrong in several ways, but very dangerous. First, Hedges mischaracterizes what makes a revolution possible in the United States, by writing that it can happen if we, "ideologically disarm the bureaucrats, civil servants and police." Much is wrong in this sentence. First, it omits to mention the members of the military forces--soldiers, sailors and marines. This omission is bizarre to say the least because it is U.S. military forces who, in the final analysis, will either forcibly defeat the revolutionary movement or else enable it to prevail by coming over to its side and using their weapons to defend it from those (most likely the police) who would obey orders to attack it. While some individual police officers might refuse orders to attack the revolutionary movement, police in general are far more likely to obey such orders than members of the military for this reason: police are trained to attack American civilians and they do this routinely, whereas members of the military are not trained to do this, don't do it routinely, and are on the contrary trained, and ideologically prepared, only to attack foreigners whom they beleive to be enemies of America's civilians.

Hedges's failure to talk about winning over soldiers to the side of the revolution, coupled with his alternative focus on"ideologically disarming" the police, reflects, at best, his lack of serious thought about making a revolution in the United States. The explanation for this is, I believe, that Hedges is not mainly concerned about making a successful revolution; he is mainly concerned about preventing violence. Thus he writes, "Violent revolutions are always tragic. I, and many other activists, seek to keep our uprising nonviolent."

What Hedges does not admit is that to "keep our uprising nonviolent" means to prevent it from succeeding. This is because any successful revolution (i.e., removal of the plutocracy from power) in the United States will inevitably necessitate the use of at least some violence in self defense by the revolutionary movement. Here is the LEAST violent scenario that it is possible to realistically imagine for a successful revolution: The revolutionary movement grows to include most of the American population; the movement demonstrates its determination by defending itself from violent attacks as best it can in a manner consistent with gaining greater public support. (See Guns and the Working Class for discussion of how violence in self defense does indeed fit in here.) Because the revolutionary movement not only has goals that are supported by many members of the military forces (whose family members and relatives and friends and neighbors are in the revolutionary movement) but--equally importantly--because the revolutionary movement demonstrates how determined it is to defend itself and to prevail, a critical mass of soldiers who support the aims of the movement decide, at the risk being executed as a traitor if the revolution fails, to refuse to obey orders to attack the revolutionary movement and to use their weapons to defend it from those who do attack it (some soldiers and very likely many police would likely obey orders to attack the revolutionary moement.) With the aid of these friendly soldiers, the revolutionary movement defeats the police and enemy soldiers and thereby removes the plutocracy from power. The larger the revolutionary movement, the less violence there would be in this minimally violent yet realistic scenario. But to imagine a successful revolution with no violence whatsoever is absurd.

This is why anybody, such as Hedges, who insists that the revolution remain nonviolent, is actually insisting that it not succeed; they are in effect saying that they do not want any soldiers to defend the revolutionary movement with their weapons from the police (and other soldiers) who will almost surely attack it. They are saying that they prefer to "fill the jails" with revolutionaries going limp and allowing the police to haul them to jail. This is a recipe for only one thing: continued rule by the plutocracy. Those who advocate the philosophy of nonviolence sometimes point to Gandhi's nonviolent movement in India driving out the British. But what they don't like to admit is that the wealthy upper class in India was not removed from power at all; it merely replaced Brits with native Indians as the personnel in top government posts. India today is notoriously a society of the few very rich haves dominating and oppressing the many have-nots. There is absolutely no historical evidence to support the claim that an oppressive ruling class can be removed from power nonviolently--none. Indeed, the philosophy of nonviolence (discussed more fully here) as taught by Gandhi is a (wrongheaded) moral philosophy that says it is better for a movement against oppression to lose than to win by using violence in self-defense.

What makes Chris Hedges's nonviolence message so dangerous is that it prevents any chance of there being a successful revolution in the United States. His messasge is no less dangerous--in fact even more dangersous--when he couches it in a way designed to make it appeal to people who do want a revolution.

Hedges not only insists on nonviolence, he also promotes a ruling class Big Lie to prevent people from thinking clearly about the issue of violence. Thus in his point #7 he says, "But if the state can organize effective and prolonged violence against dissent, it spawns reactive revolutionary violence, or what the state calls terrorism. Violent revolutions usually give rise to revolutionaries as ruthless as their adversaries. 'Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster,' Friedrich Nietzsche wrote. 'And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.'

The Big Lie here is that when people take up arms against an oppressor, they inevitably become "as ruthless as their adversasries," "monsters" who engage in "what the state calls terrorism." Terrorism, even "what the state calls terrorism" means, according to most people, violence against unarmed innocent civilians (which is, needless to say, very immoral as well as being counter-productive to any genuinely egalitarian movement.) Revolutionary movements that took up arms in the past did not generally direct violence against unarmed innocent civilians. Slaves in the Confederacy who joined the Union Army did not attack unarmed innocent civilians. Russians in the revolution that overthrew the Czar in February 1917 succeeded because the Czar's military forces used violence to protect them from the police who attacked the workers; but the revolutionary forces did not attack unarmed innocent civilians. Though I am no fan of Fidel Castro, I have never heard reports that his revolution that overthrew Batista involved attacks on unarmed innocent civilians. The Spanish Revolution in 1936-9 relied on armed militias to defend against General Franco's army, but they did not attack unarmed innocent civilians. The Poles that overthrew the Communist regime there in 1989 did not violently attack unarmed innocent civilians. Chris Hedges is simply using historically unsupported scare-mongering to frighten people from thinking seriously about the need for some violence in self-defense if the goal of revolution is to be taken at all seriously.



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