When I first came across this question, it reminded me of a conversation I had with one of the top managers of a company about five years ago. He said, “I wonder why millions of people were able to sacrifice so much during our revolution in Iran  and the war [Iran-Iraq war, 1980-88], with so much self-initiative, self-organization, cooperation and sense of belonging, but we can’t reproduce the same experience in a small company of 300 people, for small changes that directly affect our daily lives? Why can’t we reproduce the same spirit in our organizations?” What caused him to wonder even more was that most of the managers and employees who worked for the company were once among the frontline revolutionaries and war veterans, who had organized and/or participated in so many political activities.
As a youngster with a first-hand experience of the revolution and some of the war years, I had also pondered about the same question, and I missed the sense of belonging, spirit of cooperation and communal oneness that we had experienced in the short-lived days of the revolution. There was devotion to a common cause, there was no discrimination based on ethnicity/religion/sex/age/social class to participate in protests and socio-political activities, there was respect and freedom of expression, and there were lots of interesting ways in which people came together, gave each other a hand and organized themselves. Nobody had a clear definition for democracy, beyond the voting system and elective parliamentary representation, but everybody could feel that there was something in the air during the revolution and also in the warfronts.
I particularly remember one of the large protests in which I participated, along with my family members and relatives, where over a million people gathered in one of the central squares in Tehran and the surrounding streets. Even as a teenager I was struck by the way people informed each other of the happenings, gave each other food, took in and cared for the injured in their homes and endured the difficulties and shortages in electricity, gas, food, etc. during the last six months of heated protests, street fights and strikes, before the Shah’s monarchy was finally overthrown in 1979.
The spirit of “freedom” and “democracy” continued for a while after the Shah’s downfall, but it didn’t last long and soon “The Animal Farm” story was repeated, as is the unfortunate case for most revolutions. Like most youngsters who got charged up with the rising socio-political awareness of the times, I continued to read about and follow other revolutions, independence movements and political ideologies of the era, especially during college years. However, I couldn’t find any convincing example that somehow escaped the animal farm pattern. Somebody once told me that George Orwell was actually supported by Britain’s MI6 intelligence service in writing The Animal Farm book, in order to prevent the revolutions fueled by Marxist-Communist ideologies from taking shape. I don’t know if this is true or not, but it didn’t change the facts for me, as I had witnessed the same story happen at least in my own country, which was called a “Islamic revolution” and was supported by the Western powers to stop the spread of communism from our northern neighbor Soviet Union.
Anyway, my search for the successful revolution and for the right political system didn’t get me anywhere, except that it made me quite cynical about any hope in social change through “revolutions”. Along with many others, I got stuck in the same dead-end debate between revolutionary evolution and evolutionary revolution, because a mixture of both seemed necessary as in natural evolution. My frustrations with politics later led me into the world of organizations and small groups, hoping to find some hints for social change through organizational and community-level initiatives. I became more interested in the path opposite to the opening question, i.e. looking for possibilities for taking the powerful change experience at the front-line of self-organized communities and organizations to the process of creating large-scale social change.
It feels promising, yet I hesitate
With the higher level of consciousness and the interesting social networking phenomena that are showing up in the past one or two decades (perhaps revealed during the WTO protest in Seattle, all the way to the recent uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and other Middle-Eastern countries), I understand how the opening question is becoming ever more important to look at. Nevertheless, my cynicism towards the world of politics and “revolutions” in general is perhaps blocking my capacity to start with the possibilities for learning lessons from revolutionary “front-lines”.
Although my direct experience of the front-lines of a revolution is limited to a few protests (in the form of rallies, vigils, etc.), I have interacted with many front-line revolutionaries from all ranks and all inclinations, some of whom are still quite active as opposition forces (having endured many years of prison and suffering) and some of whom are still in power in the current government of Iran. My overall impression, from all my first-hand experience and second-hand observation, is that the “experience of community and democracy” in the frontlines is mostly a transient emotion that is similar to the forming stage of teams and organizations. There are feelings of belonging, oneness, cooperation and the like during the heated phases of revolutions and wars, when there is a relatively clear picture of the common cause or the common threat that bonds people together. This is the phase that gets the most media attention too, without necessarily understanding the underlying context for the revolution or uprising.
Yet, it is important to clarify what is meant by the “experience of community and democracy”. These words have become quite tricky to use in a general sense. We have to look at the deeper dynamics of how people come together and how they engage with each other, because people join revolutionary movements for various reasons and understanding the dynamics of engagement is not easy, especially during heated uprisings. Even a superficial glance could reveal different driving forces behind the coming together of people at the “front-lines”, some of which are listed below in an approximate order of strength (from least to most):
The energy of the numbers – sometimes when we asked people why they had participated in a protest or any socio-political uprising, they didn’t seem to have a clear understanding of the issue at stake or they didn’t have a particular inclination. It seems like the energy of a large current can draw in people, whether as bystanders or as participants. A gathering of a few hundred is enough to attract attention and joining a few thousand is enough to give one a boost of energy and a sense of belonging, even if it’s short-lived. Sometimes, it doesn’t even matter if the crowd has gathered for a football match or for a political protest and the two occasions could easily switch. Just being together in large numbers somehow feels good and it’s comforting to identify oneself with the majority and sometimes it hurts not to join the majority due to strong peer pressure or moral norms.
A chance for expressing dissent and “venting out” – in very repressive socio-political conditions any chance for expressing oneself can be welcomed and people, especially youngsters, take advantage of the situation to voice out their concerns. Also, for many people it gives them a chance to be part of something bigger and more meaningful in life.
A common threat brings people together – it doesn’t matter if the common threat is a natural disaster, a dictator or a national enemy. An external threat will cause the internal ones to join hands to protect each other, especially when it’s believed that everything in the commons is at stake. Of course the degree of bonding depends more on internal cohesive forces (e.g. a common value system, cultural norms, a strong religious/national identity, etc.), rather than just the strength of the external threat. For example, as observed by many, the coming together of the Japanese people in the face of the 2011 earthquake was much different from the way the Katrina hurricane was handled in America. Yet, it seems that the major driving force for most people to come together at the face of a threat is a survival instinct; some see their survival tied to others and some don’t. But, bringing people together against a common threat is actually a well-known force used around the world. Americans are made to fear communism or Islam, Muslims are made to fear Americans, many religious believers are made to fear hell, and so on.
A common tangible goal brings people together – most revolutions and political uprisings start with what people don’t want, rather than what they want. It is easier to form common goals when everybody realizes that they don’t want the dictator, they don’t want poverty, they don’t want oppression…than searching for a common purpose equally meaningful to everyone. It is true that slogans state what people want, e.g. freedom, independence, justice, and other ideals. However, deep down the number one tangible priority that joins everyone is what they don’t want, and saying ‘no’ together is always easier than saying ‘yes’ together. (This reminds me of Mother Teresa, who said she wouldn’t join a protest “against war”, but would join if it was “for peace”).
Common values bring people together – the bonding between people would be much stronger if they have common values, and not just common goals. Of course, there would be common goals, but these would be aligned with some values, a higher meaning shared by all. This doesn’t imply that what people value together is ethically right, like when a group of people value their race or their beliefs over others. Nonetheless, common values are a strong bonding force and when people join a movement with strong common values, they may have more intense emotions for being together and for a longer time.
A direct experience of the oneness of Kosmos – Such an experience will result in genuine respect for all sentient beings and authentic hospitality (beyond superficial or instrumental tolerance) towards different ways of living, being and becoming. This can then lead to something beyond the commonly known forms of “democracy” shaped by truly non-violent processes (i.e. not just the absence of physical violence, but without any kind of resentment or violence within). Only rare examples like Gandhi and Mandela’s leadership come to mind, which helped bring about “revolutions” of a totally different kind.
The above list is a very general and limited picture pointing to some of the reasons for the coming together of people at “the front-lines of revolutions”. It does not account for external manipulations due to the dynamics of international relations or due to hidden agendas and power games and also neglects many other historical, social, economical and political forces that lead to revolutions. More importantly, it does not account for the “level of consciousness” of those who join or shape the revolution. For example, the work of Don Beck and his colleagues in applying the concept of Spiral Dynamics during the anti-apartheid movement of South Africa is an enlightening and inspiring way for looking at the deeper dynamics of change, which takes into account the often neglected value systems and levels of consciousness that affect change.
To sum up, my main point is that further clarification is required to rephrase the opening question, in order to come up with a better understanding of “the powerful, living experience of community and democracy that is happening at the front-lines of revolutions”. The two words “community” and “democracy” are particularly troublesome and to help the matter I can suggest two books which I’ve found helpful in my grappling with the question at hand.
In his book The Tao of Democracy, Tom Atlee starts with an interesting account of his journey as a political activist in the 60s and reflects on the meaning of activism and democracy, followed by some examples of some deeper forms of democracy, which I think relates well with the question at hand. He also presents a broad view of the various tools, practices and processes involved in “creating new structures, practices, forms of governance”, with interesting examples from different communities and countries that address the second part of the question.
Similarly, Peter Block addresses the challenges and possibilities of “community” in his book Community: The Structure of Belonging. I would like to quote a couple of paragraphs from this book (p.134), which I feel best expresses my concern with revolutions:
“On the surface, rebellion claims to be against monarchy, dominion, or oppression. Too often it turns out to be a vote for monarchy, dominion or patriarchy. Rebellion is most often not a call for transformation or a new context, but simply a complaint that others control the monarchy and not us. This is why most revolutions fail – because nothing changes, only the name of the monarch.
… There is safety in building an identity on what we do not want. The extremists on both sides of any issue are more wedded to their positions than to creating a new possibility. That is why they make unfulfillable demands. … Any time we act in reaction, even to evil, we are giving power to what we are in reaction to.
The real problem with rebellion is that it is such fun. It avoids taking responsibility, operates on the high ground, is fueled by righteousness, gives legitimacy to blame, and is a delightful escape from the unbearable burden of being accountable. It has much to recommend it.”
Evolving the act of revolution
Although revolutions generally end up reproducing most of the same institutional/power dynamics that they were meant to confront, some form of protest, rebellion or revolutionary change against unbearable oppression and unethical behavior of the rulers may seem inevitable. The question is what could be done to ensure that even such rebellion is an evolutionary process, so that it leads to a higher stage of psycho-social development along the spiral of consciousness, i.e. an expanded awareness that would eventually help people understand that there is no external enemy or savior and that we are essentially one?
Based on my personal reflections on Iran’s revolution and other change processes I have been involved with in various organizations/communities, I have so far learned to watch out for the following assumptions when participating in any social movement:
1- The assumption of an external “enemy”. Actually any categorization of outside and inside, enemy and friend, good and bad is an illusion of the mind. I remember a quotation by the first prime minister of the transitional government after the 1979 revolution in Iran, who said, “The Shah (king) is not gone, because there is still a little Shah living within each one of us”. His message was that the spirit of monarchy and dictatorship is not gone by the departure or execution of the monarch, but that it could continue in every meeting, every election, every institution, every family and so on. Of course, the front-line revolutionaries of the time didn’t like his comment and it took less than a year when he was forced out of the post-revolution political scene and later all his party leaders were imprisoned or banned from political activity.
Even when we feel that we are forced to protest against unbearable inhumane activities of some “external oppressors”, I prefer the Zapatista’s motto of “going to war not to kill or to be killed, but to be heard”. Then even a rebellion could be an invitation for listening, dialogue and negotiation. As pointed out by Gustavo Esteva, “For their Intercontinental Encounter, the Zapatistas suggested: Un mundo en que quepan muchos mundos, ‘A world in which many worlds can fit’ (or given the connotations of fitness in English. ‘A world in which many worlds can be embraced’)”.
What this means for the initiators of any change process is that their movement needs to grow by invitation and inclusion of as many different voices and perspectives as possible. Even representatives of the so called “enemies” need to be invited. They may not show up, but the spirit of invitation and hospitality needs to be there, with open minds and hearts to welcome all to the realization of oneness. And this spirit cannot be faked. True non-violence means no resentment from within, not just the putting away of guns.
2- The assumption of the separation of ends and means. In any change movement, ranging from simple adjustments or reforms to large scale revolutions, I would never look for a fixed ideal state. There is no utopia to be achieved later and it’s not likely for paradise to be recreated on earth (even if one believed that such a separation existed from the beginning). Ranging from indigenous people to mystics and many scientists, all free spirits have realized that space-time is an illusion of the mind. So imagining that a utopia could be created in the future in some part of the world (or on the whole planet) will lead to a never-ending vicious cycle, in which we could deceive ourselves to use all possible means to hold onto our ideal dream of the future. For example, we could forego freedom until there is enough security, we could go to war and kill in order to achieve peace, we could postpone economical fairness and environmental protection until enough growth is achieved, we could exclude the opposition groups to speed up policy making, and all other sorts of tricks of the mind.
As Tana describes in a recent blog post, people like Gandhi are very clear on this point:
“The means may be likened to a seed, the end to a tree; and there is just the same inviolable connection between the means and the end as there is between the seed and the tree.” Hind Swaraj, (1962), p.71
“They say ‘means are after all means’. I would say ‘means are after all everything’. As the means so the end…There is no wall of separation between means and end. Indeed the Creator has given us control (and that too very limited) over means, none over the end. Realization of the goal is in exact proportion to that of the means. This is a proposition that admits of no exception.” Young India, 17-7-’24, p.236
“The clearest possible definition of the goal and its appreciation would fail to take us there, if we do not know and utilize the means of achieving it. I have, therefore, concerned myself principally with the conservation of the means and their progressive use. I know if we can take care of them, attainment of the goal is assured…This method may appear to be long, perhaps too long, but I’m convinced that it is the shortest.” Selections from Gandhi, (1957), pp. 36-37
3- The assumption of linearity and the prioritizing of change agendas. Many change movements are taking place in different political, economical, social, technological, environmental, spiritual domains, depending on how one intends to categorize them. However, as elaborated comprehensively by people like Ken Wilber, what is missing is an integration of all of the above– in all the realms of morality, science, art (“the good, true, beautiful”); at all the levels of body, mind, soul, spirit; and along all lines of development (including cognitive, relational, moral, etc.). Change movements, including revolutions, need to go beyond their scattered and isolated cries for help, to realize that life-death is one continuum, or rather one being which just is, as it has always been. We just need to wake up to our consciousness to realize that we are already that being manifested in different bodies and different forms.
When I see different groups hold onto one-dimensional change agendas, limiting themselves only to changes in the political scene, or economic reforms, or environmental protection- separate from each other, or considering one to be a priority over the other- I think they miss the point that life is not sequential and that living systems, including communities, do not grow linearly. Human systems grow in a dialogic and integrated manner and non-integrated mechanical interventions will distort the balance of changes that naturally come with life. It’s like the difference between industrial farming and natural/ecological farming. In nature, soil formation, the water cycle, seed distribution and the checks and balances of living organisms happens in an integrated manner. Complex systems are dialogic, they co-evolve and are self-organized.
This could happen if we did not limit the ultimate purpose of change (whether at personal, organizational or social levels) to better distribution of political and economical power to enjoy a better “standard of living”. The bottom line is not to live longer or live better (mostly taken to mean living more comfortably). This may seem necessary (depending on different worldviews), but it is certainly not enough. Therefore, change movements need to integrate material, social and spiritual lines of development (all the four quadrants of exterior-interior and group-individual, or the “integral approach of All Quadrant All Levels”, as Wilber calls it) to facilitate the development of consciousness to the next level.
“The Israeli military occupation protected us from a worse occupation: the defeat from inside (which actually started in 1993 when the World Bank and similar carriers of the disease were allowed to enter our society). One can throw a stone at a military tank but not at the World Bank. The World Bank is incarnated in friends, family members… people that you know and see every day and who, as employees or collaborators of the Bank, help spread the virus, often without realizing it; they may even feel proud of it! … The Palestinian body got the virus in 1993 (and the disease has been deepening ever since). Prior to 1993, Palestinians had hope and were able to manage their affairs; after 1993, hope was killed, expectations took over. We became mostly complainers and demanders.”
I can see the same pattern so strongly in my society, where people are always complaining, demanding and waiting for some sort of a hero or savior to come rescue them, while they have lost hope and confidence in their own beauties and abilities. Some are waiting for the imprisoned or exiled leaders to come back, some are waiting for the UN to intervene, some are waiting for the religious deities to save them and very few believe in themselves.
In such conditions, people expect their leaders to be in the front-lines to fight alongside them, to share their suffering and to lead by example. However, this kind of leading is usually limited to the heated phases of a revolution, when the “leaders” are also imprisoned, exiled or injured along with their “followers” and they are then turned into heroes. The danger in this kind of leadership is that it will result in various forms of ‘hero leaders, with herd followers’. All the responsibility is shifted to the hero (whose ego will love to feed on the powers given to him or to feed on his stories of self-sacrifice) and the followers expect him/her to come with all the answers, which is clearly not possible. So, the followers gradually lose faith in their hero and take their hopes (or rather wishful thinking) to another one, thereby initiating a vicious cycle of voting for this president or wishing for that government to win, bringing this manager to power or taking down the other. Eventually, a whole politics is built around blame and resentment, with no faith in oneself, no hope, no sense of belonging and ownership, thereby resulting in decreasing levels of participation (which surfaces in symptoms like smaller numbers of people showing up in meetings/public gatherings/rallies, less voters in elections, etc.).
5. “Bombardment by words”. All revolutions start with seemingly nice ideals, encapsulated in attractive mottos and slogans, like “independence”, “freedom”, “democracy”, “development”, “human rights” and so on. These are examples of “plastic words” or “cluster words”, the dangers of which are well elaborated in the following extracts from Munir Fasheh’s paper:
“As a Palestinian, I experienced two kinds of bombardments: bombardment of bombs (from planes and tanks) and bombardment of words. While bombs destroy and defeat people from outside, “rootless” and “cluster” words function like a Trojan horse or an AIDS virus and defeat people from within – they slowly kill the immune system of the ‘inner world’ of each person and the immune system within the community.”
“… In 1988 – the first year of the first Palestinian intifada – I realized something that puzzled me then. The Israeli authorities did not mind Palestinians having conferences denouncing Israel’s closures of educational institutions and demanding their opening. At the same time, however, Israel was intolerant and brutal against initiatives by people who started teaching children in their homes and neighborhoods or started communal farming (using lands of people in the neighborhood). The military order in August 1988 criminalized such actions and exposed people engaged in them to imprisonment and/or demolition of their homes! It was both shocking and revealing to realize how frightening it is – to those in power – for people to run their lives and manage their affairs. Complaining about Israel was not threatening, but acting autonomously was intolerable!”
“The Israeli behavior inspired me to write an article entitled: “free thought and expression vs. freeing thought and expression.” I realized for the first time in my life that the slogan “free thought and expression” was really a distraction from something deeper: freeing thought and expression; it is a slogan that robs people their freedom to think and act. Demanding the opening of schools is an example of free expression. It is quite another matter for people to free themselves from this slogan and simply live, think, act, and manage their daily affairs. … Along the same lines, the first intifada also helped me see that a challenge we face is to free our minds from models and paradigms – how to think, act, and relate outside the confines of a paradigm and outside the rootless phrase “paradigm shift”. The challenge is to free self from models and not to be free to choose from various models!”
In this light, it is very important to consider the type of language and media used to spread a movement. Lot of attention is paid to the role of “social networking”, which is mostly manifested in the means and forms of communication, but the language, content and context of communication needs to be addressed alongside. So, as Munir Fasheh reminds us:
“Avoid using words that you do not have personal meaning and experience of, to encourage you to co-author the meanings of words you use. Such co-authoring is crucial if we want to avoid being consumers of terms and meanings, and if we want to protect ourselves from the bombardment of words whose meanings do not stem from our lives.”
* * *
To conclude, I would like to note that although the above points address what we need to watch out for in change processes, many possibilities will emerge if we don’t believe in such assumptions. In other words we don’t need to do anything special, or plan a special course of action to start, organize or facilitate a revolution or any change process. Being aware of our thoughts and not believing our ego as the savior of the world can bring about so many changes from within, which will naturally affect our way of life and our interactions at every single moment.
In my personal experience, since I have made this shift away from “planning change”, “designing change programs”, “organizing change movements” and so forth, I have encountered many more possibilities for genuine change. Two years ago, when many Iranians poured into streets to protest against the rigged presidential elections, I didn’t join them. Actually, it’s been more than 15 years that I haven’t voted in any elections and I have also not joined any protests or rallies since my college years. My friends and colleagues always criticized me for my “indifference to the future of my society” and in the beginning I had a feeling that maybe they are right. However, as I resisted the “bombardment of words” and gave up my illusions of making grandiose efforts to save the world, along with my wishful thinking for creating a utopia, I began to notice the innumerable possibilities that I had always missed when I was busy making my silly change programs work.
I stopped following the headlines or the front-lines and I began to see the little signs of hope, the little seeds of life that go unnoticed. I came along a group of school teachers and hikers who had mobilized the village people to revive the southern wetlands of Lake Urmieh (the biggest salt lake in the world, which has been drying up since 1990s and people just started to protest against it in September 2011, when it found its way to the headlines). Then I came across a little NGO trying to help the orphans of AIDS, who had been left out of all government and UN aid programs. Then I met a group of organic farmers trying to set up community markets, with the help of some like-minded consumers. I started interacting with all these people, participating in their meetings, helping to document their stories, connecting them to international groups, setting up farmers markets, delivering food to homes, facilitating the learning of people in search of skills and jobs, and any activity that called my attention at the moment. Sometimes, I felt like a bee, going to all of these sources of hope to get my share of the honey, and sometimes I was like a butterfly, just hopping from one flower to another. But all the time, the cross-pollination happened naturally and the seeds of hope started spreading. Now I know that there are many seeds germinating under the ground, while many are waiting for the conditions to be ripe and it’s a fact that most will just go back to the soil or feed the “opportunistic” birds.
So, I continue to be an “irresponsible citizen”, as the meaning of front-lines and back-lines of the revolution keep changing for me. I don’t believe the news, I don’t believe my national or professional identity and I just can’t believe that I am an “I” living inside a body. I just relate so much with the following words:
“I love being invisible. There’s no responsibility in it, no one to save, no one to teach. I’m always the student: open, excited, new. I’m always filled with what’s beautiful; I’m the bottomless container that always has room for more. If I had a responsibility, it would be to help you realize your own truth. You see it, you say it, it comes from within you, and I am the witness. My finger points you back to you. You’re all that’s left of my existence, for as long as you believe that you exist.” (p.23, Katie, Byron, A Thousand Names For Joy, Harmony Books, 2007).
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