The difference matters. So do a lot of nuances along the way. In fact, I’ve always wondered why “lightworkers” and “wayshowers” seem to sit around waiting for their particular brand of savior (usually ET or angelic) from Above all the while ignoring what’s going on right now down here Below — not to mention how they could be all the while contributing to the common good! The distinction between these two ways of viewing revolution helps me understand these folks. Were they to let go of apocalypse they might actually dip their toes in Mother Earth’s good water and earth, all the while keeping their eyes on horizon’s prize as — let’s face it! — a long, slogging process flashing with both light and shadow, rather than as a single dramatic “Event” that changes everything in the blink of an eye.
What do contact with extraterrestrials, the return of Jesus Christ, apocalypse, and revolution all have in common? In a sense, they are all imagined redemptions — epic reset buttons for humanity. Onto these we can pin our heartbreaks and frustrations with the world as it is, with all its suffering, mire and messy details. Any of these redemptive apocalypses can serve as the X that solves the daunting problem of our sense of impotency. This messianic X — this unknown and imaginary seismic intervention — might help us to hold onto a kind of hope despite overwhelming evidence of a hopeless reality. Somehow, someday, something will occur that stops the madness, and we will be able to begin anew.
We need hope — in life and also in political mobilization. Hope is an essential ingredient in scaling up collective action beyond the limited pool of martyrs, saints and counter-cultural usual suspects. Organizing large-scale collective power requires something of an art of raising popular hopes and expectations. A long-term vision of a radically transformed world can be an important grounding for such hope. And isn’t such radical transformation precisely the idea of social and political revolution? Isn’t it a bit unfair to include revolution as an item on the same list as the Biblical end of days?
Perhaps it is a bit unfair. It depends on whether we mean revolution as horizon or revolution as apocalypse. Do we imagine a revolutionary restructuring of power relations in society as an all-or-nothing totalizing moment or as an aspirational horizon, something to always be moving towards? If the former, then what incentive do we have to study the details of the terrain where we are presently situated? Why would we bother to strategize about overcoming the particular obstacles that block our way today, if we believe that the accumulation of all obstacles will ultimately add up to a grand crisis that will somehow magically usher in a new era? Believing that things will “have to get worse before they get better,” we may become disinterested in — perhaps even sabotaging of — efforts to improve real-life conditions in the here and now. After all, why put a band-aid on a gaping wound? Why prolong the life of an oppressive system? With such logic we can excuse ourselves from the trouble of getting to know our political terrain. It is, after all, the very mess we hope to avoid.
If, on the other hand, we imagine revolutionary change as a horizon toward which we orient ourselves, such a vision may be of use, so long as it grounds us in a political struggle in the here and now.