The Beatle's "Revolution" and Revolution
I have been a long time fan of the Beatles (that small, obscure indie band), and I do believe them to be one of the greatest artists of the all time, and their music is certainly timeless. I was revisiting many of their songs after not listening to them for a while, including the song Revolution (not to be confused with its bluesy brother Revolution 1 or its crazy third cousin Revolution 9). It's one of my more favoured Beatles songs, but what struck me on this most recent listening is how poignant the song seems to for contemporary political era.
I think this song works best as an examination of the state of leftist revolutionary movements in the late '60s. First, a little history. Marx famously declared in the Communist Manifesto that the inherent contradictions of capitalism would inevitably lead to the proletariat rising up and seizing the means of production, ushering in a true communist state (to state it simply). 50 years after he wrote this, the revolution still hadn't come, and people began to wonder why. Lenin and the Bolsheviks suggested that the masses were too ignorant to go it alone, and needed to be shepherded by an elite revolutionary vanguard. This produced a communist revolution in Russia, but it failed to ignite the kind of worldwide movement that Marx had predicted. In fact, it sort of ran contrary to Marx, as Russia was at the time one of the least industrialized countries in Europe, and Marx had suggested that a large industrial proletarian class was a prerequisite to revolution. Meanwhile, capitalism continued apace in the industrialized world.
By the 1920s it was clear that the kind of organic revolution that Marx had predicted was not going to take place, and a number of thinkers sought explanations. Gramsci posited that capitalism had been successful at imbuing the masses with a false consciousness that he termed as Hegemony. the general idea was that capitalism so fully dominates those subjected to it that the exploited begin to believe that the system is operating within their best interests. It thus becomes all the more imperative that the proletariat be educated by an elite vanguard so that they can see where their true interests lie. Underlying this whole disconnect was the fact that conditions for industrial workers had improved greatly between Marx's time and Gramsci's. Marx thought that the only way workers could end the horrid conditions they were being subjected to was by overthrowing the system entirely. Instead, they had merely moderated capitalism's impact by winning gradual reforms—higher pay, limited hours, improved safety conditions, etc. To the leftists, however, these reforms were merely institutional; instead of ending a system that was inherently exploitative, the capitalists had instead thrown a few crumbs the workers' way so that they could just barely stave off revolution. But if only the workers understood that they were being hoodwinked, etc., etc.
By the 1960s, most leftists had given up on the idea that the communist revolution would ever be led by the working class. The postwar economic boom and strength of unions meant that most industrial workers had entirely too much invested in the current system to upend it entirely; average folks with refrigerators and two cars who always have enough to eat are disinclined to jeopardize their situation. The idea that these people were being exploited, however, didn't go away. This was also the beginning of the age of consumerism, so the narrative changed such that now the proletariat was being bribed by the availability of cheap consumer goods. That capitalism was against the best interests of the working class was accepted as axiomatic by academic leftists—they never took seriously the idea that most of the working class actually liked capitalism and genuinely thought it was in their best interests. They were merely unenlightened sheep.
Operating in this milieu were European émigré philosophers who had brought leftist ideas to American universities after the Nazis took power in Europe. These philosophers, among them the critical theorists Adorno and Horkheimer, came to the conclusion that students should be the new revolutionary vanguard. And so began the New Left. No longer would socialist operatives spend their time in factories organizing labor unions, they would spend time at universities organizing students. The New Left completely untethered leftism from its traditional concern with the industrial proletariat. At the same time, it embraced critical theory's ideas about power structures to expand Marx's ideas to anyone who presumably lacked power. This resolved the inherent contradiction of needing an elite vanguard to effect revolution—if the oppressed are defined as anyone outside of the existing power structure, then anyone who claims to be oppressed certainly qualifies. It doesn't matter if you're the upper-middle-class son of a lawyer attending a prestigious university; if you lack any real political power you're oppressed. And the young almost without exception lack political power. And even if it did seem a bit rich to claim you're oppressed yourself, there were still plenty of marginalized people out there for you to advocate on behalf of. This is the whole SDS-style counterculture the 1960s is famous for.
But by 1968 the movement had begun to cleave. Initially, most of the new left counterculture had adopted the kind of nonviolent stance that was epitomized by Dr. King. Starting around 1966, King was increasingly seen by many in the more radical wing of the civil rights movement as being too conservative to meet the challenges of racism head-on. The Civil Rights act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act had been major achievements, but they hadn't really done anything to improve the material conditions for most black people. While the civil rights movement had always had leftist allies, the movement was becoming increasingly leftist itself, and the Stokeley Carmichaels and Bobby Seales of the world had no use for any nonviolent resistance shit. H. Rap Brown described the ghetto riots of 1967 and 1968 as mere dress rehearsals for the coming revolution. And although they weren't established as organizations at the time Revolution was written, the philosophy underpinning groups such as Weather Underground, the White Panther Party, and the Yippees was an increasing part of the public consciousness.
But there was another new strain of leftism that ran counter to all of this. If the people are insufficiently enlightened to see where there true interests lay, then seizing power structures isn't going to do more than make a mess. It's no longer a vanguard trying to spark a mass uprising against a powerful minority, but a minority trying to forcibly impose its ideas on the resistant masses. Even if such a revolution is successful, the only way to maintain it is with violence, and a system that relies on continuous violence to maintain itself is obviously undesirable. Additionally, countercultural trends starting with the Beats began to view these deceived masses with more contempt than sympathy. They were all morons living totally unfulfilling suburban lives in identical boxes and were placated by vapid television programs. This was such a far cry from Marx's original vision that it also became a problem for this second group— Marx's primary concern with capitalism was that it was cruel to the proletariat; the new radicals seemingly wanted to destroy the proletariat, or at least to subjugate them.
A second issue is that by 1968 there were already enough revolutions to provide examples of what a communist state would look like. If the 60s radicals abhorred violence, there was no shortage of violence in post-revolutionary communist states. To the contrary; the governments that came into power in these states tended to rely on violence more than the liberal Western societies the radicals were rebelling against. It was clear to this new wing of the counterculture that seizing power through violent revolution, even if possible, wasn't desirable. But what if the problem didn't have to be tackled from the top-down, but could be tackled from the bottom up? What if the violence of the system was merely due to the mindset of the individual members? If there is a false consciousness, then maybe addressing that is better than toppling the entire system. In the 1960s, the growing popularity of LSD helped fuel this idea. The idea of people living in intellectual darkness had been around for a long time, from Plato's Allegory of the Cave to Christ's promise of the beatific vision. These were a bit too involved, though. Plato suggested that a lifetime of philosophical study was necessary to escape the cave and its illusions; Christianity went further, requiring that one no longer be alive before being able to experience God directly. With LSD, however, one could achieve enlightenment in mere hours simply by ingesting a chemical. This seemed fine when the only people who had experienced LSD already ran in hip intellectual circles, but as the substance became more widely available it became abundantly clear that not everyone who took it became enlightened. The Beatles themselves gave it up in exchange for Transcendental Meditation, wherein it took a whole six weeks of study at Marrakesh to achieve enlightenment. Other elements were added—think globally, act locally, Zen Buddhism as popularized by Alan Watts, back to the land, etc.—to form the mishmash of bastardized Eastern religions and premodern Western thought that comprises the vague spirituality known as New Age.
But that wasn't for a few decades to come. In 1968 people still genuinely believed that "freeing ones mind" was a necessary prerequisite to revolution. If everyone could free his mind, revolution would be unnecessary. The song is basically a rebuke to violent, aimless 60s radicals who want Revolution but wouldn't know what to do with it if they got it. They want to destroy, but have no plan on how to build. They justify the actions of violent communist dictators solely because they achieved the revolutions they sought, and not because they actually made anything great out of them. But in Lennon's mind, the problem is different. The constitution can say whatever you want, but unless you're enlightened, you'll fuck it up anyway. Institutions don't matter as much as the people who run them, so free your mind instead of changing the whole structure, and encourage others to free their minds as well. If you insist on ramming unpopular ideologies down people's throats, you're only sowing the seeds of your own irrelevance. This logic would eventually prove as fallacious as all of the various Marxist justifications that have been put forth over the years, but for a brief period it seemed doable. Lennon would quickly abandon this line of thinking himself in favor of more traditional agit-prop, though it should be mentioned that the political activism of celebrities is almost always hopelessly muddled. This would culminate in 1972's Some Time in New York City, widely (and correctly) regarded as Lennon's worst album, and he would all but abandon political statements after this. But Revolution is still an awesome song.