Universal Values are Revolutionary Values

If we want to organize a hundred million, we must not only go where people live and work, but we must also engage what they think and believe. And people believe in universal values.

In moments of revolutionary flux, the chaos and confusion of on-the-ground politics outruns the far too orderly confines of ideology. Perhaps this is why revolutionary movements cannot win the hearts and minds of millions of people without struggling toward Equality, Ecology, Peace, Love, Freedom and Democracy.

We have heard these before and will likely hear their echoes:

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

Peace, Bread and Land

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

We the People

Land and Liberty

All Men Are Created Equal

Workers of the World Unite

The revolutionary declarations of independence, from Ireland to Vietnam, are classic calls to freedom that mix universal values with patriotism. The Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh quoted the American Declaration of Independence’s assertion of inalienable human rights, which he interpreted to mean: “All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.”

“…The true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.” — Che Guevara.

Revolutionary Ghana‘s most popular slogan was “Freedom: Forward Ever, Backward Never.” Patrice Lumumba linked anti-imperialism and new forms of political identity together as “Independence and African Unity.”

And now from the heart of America come new calls for universal values that reinvent and reinterpret classic revolutionary ideals. It’s not too hard to see that Mni WiconiWater is Life means Life, that Treaty Rights and Sovereignty are a claim for land and liberty, that defense of the sacred is, among other things, the pursuit of happiness.  Let this sink in:  the values of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness from our first great revolution are the same values at stake now, in the struggle to defend mother nature, native rights and in the powerful fusion of the sacred, scientific and political invented at Standing Rock.  And Water, Water, Water: the one thing that is everything to every living thing.  There is no value more universal than that.

Power to the People

Freedom is more than liberation from empire or oppression. Freedom is the power to achieve self-governance.

In its Constitution, the United States asserts that power as belonging to “We the People.” For the Irish it’s “Sinn Féin” (“We  Ourselves.”) In Xhosa, South Africans chanted “Amanda Awethu!” (“Power is Ours!”) The Black Panthers “All Power to the People” became “Power to the People,” perhaps the most widely loved ideal in the movements of the Sixties and Seventies. Listen to John Lennon or Rootz Underground sing it.

All these revolutions — and many more — aspired to universal values and moved millions.  We need millions because the challenge is steep. Surely, we have lost our democracy.

It is… for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us….that this nation…shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. – Lincoln

Whether we look to the past or peer into the future, universal values will help us to find our way to power.

Today, the Green Party wisely advocates not ideology but universal values. The Green Party program is peace, ecology, social justice, democracy. It is this focus rather than ideological precision that gives the Green party its promise as a new mass political force.

Personally, I like Peace, Power and Whole Earth.[1]

The Right to Revolution

Today, we need to reclaim an often overlooked universal value from the American revolutionary tradition. The right to revolution itself.

The Declaration of Independence insisted on revolution as both right and duty. 

[W]henever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends [securing the people’s rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness], it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government . . . .[W]hen a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

James Madison, the principal author of the US Constitution, laid it out like this:

If there be a principle that ought not to be questioned within the United States, it is, that every nation has a right to abolish an old government and establish a new one. This principle is not only recorded in every public archive, written in every American heart, and sealed with the blood of a host of American martyrs; but is the only lawful tenure by which the United States hold their existence as a nation.[2]

On the verge of Civil War Abraham Lincoln looked straight at the right to revolution:

This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their Constitutional right of amending it, or their revolutionary right to dismember it or overthrow it.” [3]

I rely on these flawed giants, sullied by slavery and white supremacy as they were, because we can see further if we stand on their shoulders. From that vantage point, maybe our own terrible flaws can come more clearly into view: war, empire,  corporate power, ecocide, the new Jim Crow and slave-like prison labor in our vast militarized penal system. Despite many shortcomings, great Americans have always aspired to revolution as we still must now.

Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King innovated universal values of immediate strategic use: non-violence and peace. Massive nonviolent civil disobedience  emerged as a transformative revolutionary strategy not simply because it was morally superior to war but because nonviolence promises a struggle that millions of people might risk participation in.

And it is only a revolution, made by millions, that will affect the sweeping transformations in consciousness necessary to change the world.  It will take the power of millions to reconstruct government, transform corporations into public utilities, build a new cooperative economy, and dismember the empire.

A hundred million activists are also necessary to safeguard against the reemergence of the hierarchies and political machines that have plagued history’s prior revolutions.  Massive, non-violent civil disobedience is inherently democratic.

E Pluribus Unum

Universal values are the best instruments for the solidarity and coordination of the “movement of movements” that is our future lest disaster come. Universal values increase our capacity to win the struggle for hearts and minds of people from all walks of life.

Yes, universal values are capacious and open-ended but that’s exactly why they work.  People are walking, talking contradictions without transparent perspectives or untroubled minds.

One hundred and thirteen years ago in The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Dubois identified the human experience of double-consciousness.

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness….One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body…

In the century since Dubois’s time of “two-ness,” political consciousness has done nothing but further multiply, complicate and fragment. For evidence, look no further than the social movements that have emerged since the Sixties.  Struggles over race, class, gender, sexuality, age, war and empire have merged with Occupy, the Sanders revolution,  the new civil rights, environmental, student and veteran movements to weave a crazy quilt of democratic opposition and alternatives.  We are polycentered, diverse, conflicted, variegated, fluid, and rapidly shifting. This is reality. It is a good thing.

Universal values accommodate the ambivalent nature of social identity through multivalent relevance across a broad range of social movements, identities, and communities.

Different people see freedom and live freedom differently. Let it be and build on it.

With universal values as our revolutionary ideals —rather than an ideology—we may steer clear of, or at least minimize, endless polemics and needless schism. Universal values bring us closer to the minds of the millions and closer to transformative change. The world presses in. We cannot wait.

If revolution means freedom or equality or peace or a whole and healthy earth, then the path forward passes through every single community, identity,  movement, and history. We need to pursue each and every path. The history of the last half-century strongly suggests that political movements cannot be reduced to a singular perspective.

Both agreement and disagreement are the inescapable conditions of political life. We must embrace this.  Revolutionary strategy must account for “both/and.” Universal values allow us to agree and disagree simultaneously as we work together in a rough and ragged harmony.

Let us fight on — rough and raggedy as we might be — for Freedom, Democracy, Ecology and Equality.


[1] Richard Moser, New Winter Soldiers, p. 157-158.

[2] James Madison, Letters of Helvidius, no. 3, 1793.

[3]. Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address 1861.

Richard Moser writes at befreedom.co where this article first appeared.