6 People You Need to Start a Revolution


By Sara Robinson



With the 99% Spring up and rolling and set to bring 100,000 new activists to the party this weekend, there’s some increased friction between various progressive groups who are working to expand the movement this year.

It’s a good time to remember that mass movements are — by design and necessity — big and diverse, encompassing lots of different kinds of people who bring all kinds of skills, resources, interests and priorities to the table. As progressives, we’ve always believed that that diversity is our most important strength.

There’s not enough that can be said about the genius of Occupy at raising America’s awareness of the corporatization of our culture, and defining and framing the predations of the 1 percent against the 99 percent as the defining conflict of our age. But now it’s time to take the message out of the parks and streets and into the American mainstream. If the goal is to build a truly diverse nationwide movement that will change the foundations of the American economy, getting more established groups like MoveOn.org, Rebuild the Dream and the labor unions involved can only be a good thing.

For the revolution to spread, the Occupy protestors need to be joined by other people — very specific kinds of other people, in fact. Centuries of social change theorists going back to Marx and before have figured out that successful revolutions require certain recurring character types and skill sets. History tells us that the relationships between these very different groups are more often than not fractious and prickly — and, in fact, revolutions (like the French Revolution) can very easily fail when they’re seized and overwhelmed by vicious infighting between people who are nominally on the same side.

(A sober reminder: The Terror was, at its core, a purge against “co-optation”: Robespierre was determined to preserve the purity of the revolution at all costs. A majority of the people who went to the guillotine, including, ultimately, Robespierre himself, were on the side of the revolution.)

At some point, we have to decide we’re going to trust each other, or this new revolution simply isn’t going to work. Based on the patterns of history, there are six categories of people without whom no modern revolution has ever succeeded. And that success only happened when members of all six groups were able to put their personal misgivings aside, honor and value the irreplaceable knowledge each one brought to the table, and consciously built up enough mutual trust to bring about the future vision all the parties shared.


There’s no doubt about it: you need rabble-rousers, organizers, rally makers, protest leaders — the people who know how to turn masses of people out into the streets, keep them there for as long as it takes, and get the rest of the country (media, politicians, the man and woman in the street) to pay attention to what they’re saying. In every generation, this requires different skills, different technologies, and different tactics. But without these people, you don’t have a movement.

That’s the piece of the equation that progressives haven’t been great at for a long time, and that Occupy revived for us with tremendous originality and flair. They kicked open the door, went in, and dragged America to the table for a new conversation. When the activists move, history gets made.


But even the best activists can’t move the masses if they don’t have a coherent story to tell, clear arguments to make, and game-changing policy changes to demand. Every successful movement has a compelling, factual story about why change must happen and well-reasoned theory for how that change must occur. This R&D function is what intellectuals bring to the revolution.

In the current moment, the progressive movement’s intellectuals are its think-tankers, bloggers, speakers, professors and authors — the people who’ve been honing critiques of corporatist economy, politics and culture over the past few decades. Over time, they’ve quietly been dreaming up a new vision for how a truly free, secure, sustainable, and just American society ought to work.

In every successful revolution, the intellectuals are the people who hang onto the map of where we’re going, and keep us from drifting off course when the chaos of change threatens to blow us into dangerous deeps. They know, better than anybody, how this new order goes together and what we’ll need to do to build it.


It’s a tragic truth that the kinds of imaginative people who can envision new societies — the intellectuals — are typically not the same people who know how to communicate those visions to the great mass of people. In fact, the intellectuals are often crummy at it. To get people off their butts and out into the streets, you need professional storytellers — writers, artists, songwriters, poets, filmmakers, actors, ritualists — who are gifted at grabbing people by the guts and not letting them go.

Artists are the ones who transform the intellectuals’ ideas and visions into heart-level imperatives brimming with deep historical and personal meaning. They’re the ones who can inspire vast numbers of people to make the necessary sacrifices, to feel intense bonds of solidarity, and to understand that the work of revolution is the most important work of their lives. You can’t do that with a treatise. It takes a manifesto, a movie, a theatrical ritual, a marching song.

Emma Goldman said: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” Our artists are the ones who make sure that we keep dancing, even when things are at their darkest. Without artists keeping them engaged in the grand story of their own quest, people lose focus and wander off. But with that encouragement, they’ll dance bravely straight into the abyss, even if they know death is waiting for them there.


The activists, intellectuals and artists are all loath to admit it, but the bare fact is that no revolution succeeds without a cadre of shrewd political operators who intuitively understand how power works, and are ready to rush in and deftly pull exactly the right levers the minute they’re left unguarded by the powers that be.

This fact is going down really hard across the progressive movement right now. Here we are, trying to purify the nation from its corruption by the money power. It’s natural that we’d be the most suspicious of the people in our own midst who best understand how that power works. We worry that this familiarity somehow taints their intentions and bends their sympathies. It bothers us that they know how to speak to evil on friendly terms in its own native language, and are willing to negotiate compromises with it. We doubt that they’re really as committed to the idea of revolution as the rest of us are, and feel constantly uneasy about where their true loyalties lie.

These are all very valid concerns, and they should be attended to. Of all the groups, this one is far and away the hardest one to trust. After all, they sit across lunch tables inside the beltway exchanging funny stories about their kids and dogs with people from Heritage, AEI and Cato! They go to parties hosted by billionaire banksters! They’ve got lobbyists on speed-dial!

And yet we need trustworthy and committed insiders every bit as much as we need our activists, intellectuals and artists. Insiders are our eagle-eyed scouts and spotters. Without access to the thousand small details they know about how the system works — the people, the rules, the gossip, the way power and money flows — our strategies to undermine it are doomed to failure. They’re also the ones most likely to notice subtle change signals coming from inside the power centers, alert us to rare windows of opportunity when they open, and tell us what we need to do gain maximum leverage over events.

Love ’em or hate ’em, trust ’em or keep a close eye on ’em, it’s all fine, and the best ones completely understand and expect this. But at the end of the day, we will not succeed with our inside operators. No revolution ever does. It turns out that if you want to dismantle the master’s house, it actually does help to have someone on your side with a journeyman’s knowledge of the master’s tools.

Supportive Elites

Marx may have been the first one to notice that revolutions only really take off when they’re backed by a group of disaffected elites — both economic and intellectual –who are willing to bring their connections, influence, organizational skills, money, fame and other resources to bear.

Either because of upper-class birth or sheer dint of talent, these people have been trained from childhood to lead society’s important institutions. In a stable society, they’re typically very well-rewarded by the status quo for this service, and thus don’t have any incentive to rock the boat. But one of the hallmarks of a society that’s descending into revolution is that the rewards system fails everybody, and these are the very people with the most of all to lose. Always, we see what we see now: a few greedheads get all the money, and people of real merit, skill and talent get the shaft.

Alongside them, there are also a handful of rich people with strong social consciences whose theory of wealth follows Paul Wellstone’s rule: Everybody does better when everybody does better. They know that their own prosperity depends on a strong middle class and are willing to get into the fight to protect the nation’s future. When these two groups get angry enough to abandon their privileges and join the fight, everything changes.

If the other groups are building the fuse, it’s the elites who carry the matches. They bring enough cultural and financial gravity to leverage a local uprising into a major revolution. They add ballast and weight to the revolution’s efforts, slicing through obstacles and putting massive momentum behind every new action. The connected ones gather support for change in the halls of power, and like the insiders (who often play an important role in convincing them to step up), they are skilled at anticipating and countering the big counterattacks when they come. The famous ones get the media to pay attention to the cause and sometimes to say nice things about it. The rich ones ensure that the revolution has beans, boots and bullets — because at the end of the day, the fight can last only as long as these people’s resources do.

The Masses

And finally, we come to the basic truth: You cannot have a mass movement without the masses. Margaret Mead said that a few truly committed individuals can change the world. But they never do it alone; they do it by getting a big enough slice of society engaged and ready for the fight.

How big a slice? Good question. A rough answer would be about 15 percent of the country. That’s about the number of Americans who identify with the Tea Party. It’s also the number of Americans who participated in the American Revolution (and also about the number of active Nazi Party members in prewar Germany). At 15 percent, almost everybody in the country knows someone in the group personally. It’s enough to win a few elections in various corners of the country, putting you on the political map. It is, in short, enough people to create some pretty serious cultural and political ripples.

By this measure, we’re already doing fabulously well. Various polls over the past year have found that Americans’ sympathy for Occupy has at times run as high as 70 percent. This suggests that progressives are now telling a story that Americans are ready to hear and that makes sense to them. A lot of people are interested in what we’re doing and wondering how they might get involved.

But Boomer-era progressives are worried. They know all too well from their own experience how easy it is to lose the sympathy of average Americans when we appear to threaten their sensibilities, even if they share our goals and values. But they also know that as long as we keep the focus on the broader story, rather than the small dramas, we have the first real chance in years to change the way America works.

The broader story the masses want to hear from us is this:

America‘s greatness and prosperity was built on the strength of her working and middle classes. Together, we — the 99 percent — built the world’s strongest democracy, enforced the rule of law, provided for the common defense, promoted the general welfare, established an ever-rising standard of justice, ensured domestic tranquility, and secured the blessings of liberty for many generations of American families.

Now, our 99 percent way of life is gone, devoured by an elite 1 percent who took over our own government and used it against us to seize both the personal and the common wealth amassed for us by generations of our ancestors and provided to us by the bounty of this land.

We want our American birthright back. We want to restore rule by the 99 percent. We want the elites to return our futures and our government to us. We will challenge them by every means we can find until this happens.

We are not going away. Their 1 percent’s dream of an American feudal state is over. Our American dream of sustainable prosperity and opportunity for the rest of us is now beginning — again.

That’s not a story any one of the above groups can ever tell on its own. It will take all of us — activists, intellectuals, artists, insiders, elites and the masses — combining our common will and focus to bring that future about. And the sooner we can start honoring the specific and necessary skills and strengths each of us brings to the process, even when they’re different from our own, the sooner we’ll be on our way to the next American Dream.

Sara Robinson, MS, APF, is a social futurist and the editor of AlterNet’s Vision page. Follow her on Twitter, or subscribe to AlterNet’s Vision newsletter for weekly


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