Power concedes nothing without a demand

We struggle because there is no alternative. We need to struggle because none of us can know when the spark will come. To not struggle is to give up.

Photo by Patrick Prémartin

Photo by Patrick Prémartin

I couldn’t help thinking about this subject again while helping out at an Occupy Wall Street information table last Sunday. As usual, there were many perspectives contending, but there was a distinct undercurrent of despair. Some articulated that as frustration that more people can’t be reached faster, but another subset was rooted in the idea that all is already lost, that we are already running out of time. From the latter it is a short journey toward giving up.

The process of organized resistance to injustice is called “struggle” for a reason — it is never easy. Frederick Douglass said it as well as it can said be a century and a half ago in words that will always bear repeating:

“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

During this process, success always lies over the horizon. Sometimes we struggle for something we won’t see in our lifetimes; history is replete with such examples. Sometimes we know we won’t see it in our lifetimes, but the call of a greater good animates us. Sometimes we do taste victory. But when? We can never know ahead of time.

One strike among many

Take Russia’s February Revolution of 1917, when the tsar was overthrown. People persevered for decades in conditions far worse than anybody in an advanced capitalist country faces. The movement waxed and waned; strikes and even peaceful marches were drowned in blood. St. Petersburg, then the capital, was racked by waves of strikes in the first weeks of 1917 amidst shortages of all kinds.

Put aside for the moment your opinion about the eventual course of Russian history; the people struggling to survive at this time shouldn’t be held responsible for the wrong turns the October Revolution later took. On one particular day, tens of thousands of women textile workers walked out, then went to the metal factories and asked the men working there to join them. They did, the strike spread and within two days a general strike took hold. In another five days, the tsarist régime was finished — one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships brought to an end.

Why that one day? Why that one strike among hundreds of actions? We can never know. The most we can say is that on that particular day, Russians had finally had enough. This amazing feat, overthrowing an autocratic régime that had endured for centuries, occurred as most of the leaderships of the various political parties and organizations were in Siberian exile, in foreign exile or in jail.

Yet there was no spontaneity at work. Russia’s socialists had tirelessly laid the groundwork, and although the tsar’s secret police had decimated their ranks and so many had paid with exile, banishment, hard labor, jail and execution, the ideas could not be stamped out. The talks of the socialist agitators, the words of the socialist newspapers, pamphlets and fliers, resonated with the experiences of Russians — not only in the cities, but in the countryside and in the army and navy. It was this practical work, carried out over many years, that provided the people of Russia with the tools necessary to understand, and then change, their conditions.

They changed their conditions even though most were so under-educated that they were illiterate; even though a omnipresent propaganda insisted that the tsar ruled as a direct representative of God and there could be no change; even though police, militaries, death squads and secret police promised swift retribution against anyone questioning the natural order, the only order that could be.

Dignity in the face of inhumanity

Take a more recent example, South Africa. The apartheid régime seemed impervious. Disdainful of world opinion, determined to hold power at any cost, murdering or shipping to island prisons its opponents with impunity, consigning the Black majority to grinding poverty and daily humiliation — how could optimism that a better day would come be sustained? Yet is was.

I remember vividly the day Nelson Mandela made his first speech after his release. The only picture we had of him had been that of a young man with a fierce expression. Now here he was, an older man with gray hair. I was startled by his appearance before remembering we were seeing him three decades older, all at once. I couldn’t quote to you a single word of what he said that day, but it was perhaps the most memorable speech I have ever witnessed. What I do remember is the dignity of Nelson Mandela. Dignity. He was not broken after 27 years in prison, not at all. But beyond that, the African National Congress leader was fully human.

He would not allow his humanity to be taken away, no matter how cruel his oppressors. Nelson Mandela made that speech because he was part of a movement. Only an organized movement could have brought that day. A movement willing to engage in struggle. Another African National Congress leader, Steven Biko, summarized a most important lesson in these words:

“The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”

Throwing up your hands in despair, declaring that nothing can be done so nothing should be started: You are oppressing yourself more effectively than any dictatorship, any sham democracy, any rule of financiers. To say “they” are too strong or too vicious, whomever “they” are, is to give up on living. Such an attitude is the surest route to your material conditions getting worse, to the next generation living under harsher conditions.

Everything of human creation is temporary. Everything of human creation will come to an end. Whether the next system will be better or worse, whether we or our descendants will be more or less free, is up to us.

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2 comments on “Power concedes nothing without a demand

  1. Jeff Nguyen says:

    This is an outstanding essay and a call to arms for us a to pick up whatever is at hand-pens, signs, petitions, marching shoes, raw materials-to join the struggle. Several good points that stood out to me was first, the need to understand that the change we seek may not (or may) happen in the near future. Who knows which drop of water will cause the levee to break?

    Second, we fight not just for justice or causes, we fight for dignity. For ourselves and for our fellow human beings. This is what must frustrate the ruling class the most, how the spirit of the people grows stronger despite their best efforts to crush it out of them.

    Finally, the power of the collective hearts and mind. We don’t have to be the same at the individual level but we have to be willing to come together for the vision of a new day to be realized. This is what the ruling class fears the most as evidenced by the brutal crackdowns on dissent such as Bradley Manning or the Occupy movement.

    I apologize if I misinterpreted any of your key points. It’s exciting to read someone who is still passionate about the struggle. OWS is fortunate to have you on their side!

    • Thanks much for your thoughtful comments, Jeff. We indeed can not know which drop of water will cause the levee to break. Occupy is fortunate to have you with them as well, and we’re all stronger when folks like you are part of the movement.

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