Apocalyptic and Revolutionary Education in Times of Pandemic

After the crash of 2009 came the uprisings beginning a so-called “Arab Spring”, the city square occupations of the Indignados, and the Occupy movement. What would Wayne Gretzky[1] do today, facing the currently unknown aftermath of the historic Covid-19 pandemic crash? What should popular movements do under the historically unprecedented circumstances we face today? How should we move from historic crisis of the system to revolutionary transformation now?

The Democracy Collaborative appropriately frames the issues and suggests a practical, visionary approach:

“We are in a bewildering and unstable time. Our collective response to COVID-19—even though it may prove inadequate to protect the millions that will die if our healthcare system is overwhelmed—has already brought the economy to the edge of standstill. …

The choice before us is clear: either this crisis is a chance to create a more democratic economy—broadening ownership and wealth of the economy, supporting enterprises grounded in worker, community, and public control, repairing the brutal inequities created by centuries of racialized dispossession, and investing in an ecologically sustainable future—or it is a chance for the extractive economy we have now to reinforce itself still further. … If our governments extend a meager and partial lifeline to ordinary families and small businesses, while creating trillions of dollars to bail out the most financialized and most concentrated centers of wealth, the world we will emerge into after the COVID-19 crisis will be a brutal one. …

The first [task in the current period] is to support the movements on the ground, working through the unprecedented and difficult context of social distancing and epidemiological lockdowns, who are pushing for the immediate relief the families on the front lines of this crisis need. Food, shelter, power, healthcare, and water are human rights, and we stand with those fighting to make sure these rights are secured. We need to make certain there are no evictions, no shutoffs, no one fearing where their next meal for their children is going to come from—and that everyone has access to the healthcare they need during this crisis.

The second task is to elevate the vision of the democratic economy we want to see—to help us all understand, in the quickly moving conversation around us, that two starkly different paths are now opening ahead of us. As the nation moves through and eventually out of the crisis, steps taken now will support either an extractive economy, or a democratic one. We might see failing businesses bought up and consolidated by predatory finance, increasing wealth inequality, with most Americans becoming ever more desperate. Or we might see communities, city and state governments, and anchor institutions come together to protect and build locally, people bailed out rather than companies, failing oil companies brought into government receivership and wound down as part of a Green New Deal, investors becoming part of the solution rather than the problem.

A few weeks ago, our work on ambitious systemic policies like the democratic nationalization of key sectors of the economy or the decommodification of housing were attempts to put in place contingency plans for a future time of opportunity or crisis. That future is upon us. The crisis is now here. We must rise collectively to meet this challenge.”

We must start living differently. Our systems and institutions must be changed to elevate human rights and the general social and economic welfare of humanity over the power of concentrated property wielded in the interests of the rich. Our collective failure to cross the “river of fire” (William Morris)[2], and take on the whole system of exploitation, racism, patriarchy, extraction and domination until now, has landed us here. While we physically distance, within a week or two we should learn what parts of our planet will look like Italy – a massive and deadly horror show – going forward, and which communities will take the lead in fighting for a survivable, sustainable future on the far bank of the river of fire. Forget about everything else. This is our real work now.

As the great baseball philosopher Yogi Berra may have said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future”. And when the future gets this scary, up close, and personal, it’s really rough. As I write this, only time will tell what kinds of challenges await us on the other side of this historic inflection point (or even if that’s what it is for sure, although it sure looks world altering right now…). We can and should double down on revolutionary education, organizing and fighting back from the grassroots. A clear demand that the water connections, health care subsidies, income supports for ordinary People, and the other necessary emergency measures be made permanent should be the first step. On the other side of cataclysm, wherever it ends up being, politically appropriate movements for bottom up power will be the only hope. They always have been.

In late February I finished this essay, which seems timelier than ever now. I offer it as a way to start thinking about where we go from here, toward new language and strategies grounded in our new realities:

Apocalyptic and Revolutionary Education

We should expressly define, and seek, “mental health” in revolutionary struggle against the apocalypse.

Today’s youth face fearsome challenges in the sphere of what our society calls “mental health”.

A lot of this epidemic is the result of being personally and criminally violated by child abuse and other terrible traumas. Individuals’ and families’ victimization is devastating. I want to begin by noting this, express deepest sympathy, and recognize the base line created by such wrongs. The real legacy of trauma gives great validity to concepts that are often unjustly derided, such as “triggering” and “micro-aggressions”. We should always be mindful of and compassionate about who and what we’re dealing with.

But in addition to expanding the availability of caring, professional treatment for victims, I want to explore some important social and historical contexts, hopefully to promote broader analysis and conversations, and ultimately collective strategies for deep change that have the potential to benefit all of us.

Depth of the Crises

The basic features of the mutually interlocked and cascading crises are familiar: looming climate catastrophe and other ecological debacles rooted in our violent alienation from nature; a renewed nuclear arms race; exploding economic inequality and racial injustice, with austerity and poverty for the global majority; a scarifying movement toward authoritarianism – even neo-fascism – around the planet. It all makes simply facing each new day a burden.

Education-in-action can be key to overcoming our daily challenges, as well as the whole horrifying prospect of our world in flames. But it has to be a particular kind of “freedom school” education, directly targeting the humanity of both the teacher / learner and the student / leader, and simultaneously framing the apocalypse (a word from the Greek for “unveiling”) of 21st century life as a context of unprecedented change, revelation and renewal for virtuous humanity.

The literal poster child for this dynamic is of course 17-year old Greta Thunberg, Sweden’s gifted citizen-of-the-world, whose autism reportedly manifested in childhood as selective mutism, severe and probably life-threatening depression. Then she started not only to learn about the looming catastrophe of climate change, but determined to do something about it, even if she acted alone. Her one-person school strikes became a model for tens of millions of climate activists. In 2019 they made significant breakthroughs for human consciousness of the crisis.

Not coincidentally, Greta herself became a globally recognized leader, teacher, and advocate, turning her “mental health” diagnosis into astonishingly articulate power. Profound lessons of her personal truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story form the skeletal basis of what I’m calling apocalyptic and revolutionary education.

Mental Health

The last thing we should seek is to “adjust” People to living in a sick society. Rather we should expressly define, and seek, “mental health” in revolutionary struggle against the apocalypse. Simply writing those words, I can barely contain my enthusiasm about the mere prospect of trying it out with teenagers.

There is power in seeking the truth, learning democracy, participating in community, fighting for justice. Our collective values around health, development, socialization, freedom and rights and obligations simply must be martialed together through education, to make love a material force for revolutionary change and survival of humanity, in the face of threatening apocalyptic collapse. I don’t have anything else to say about what our society calls “mental health”.

Class Struggle Identity Politics

We can choose revolutionary struggle against the apocalypse, or we can choose death after meaningless lives. Those are our choices. That’s the basis of the curriculum.

If “the devil is in the details”, then honest and project-based, hands-on education in subjects like history, psychology, the natural sciences, mathematics, language arts and other traditional subjects, as well as subjects that may not have been invented yet, will fill them in. The place-specific content and context for this learning is crucial. It’s all around us in our communities’ crises. The key difference between the kind of education I’m proposing, and our current boring and meaningless schooling, is a relentless focus and drive toward students’ agency and power to shape our own lives and communities.

Dealing with such powerful subject matter requires sensitivity, nuance and context-specific discernment, all valuable skills for surviving the utter disaster that capital and white supremacy are rapidly transforming our world into. Applying dynamic and flexible models of class struggle and class conflict, adapted to meet the needs of identities like race, gender, identity, ability and other distinctions, a successful movement for apocalyptic and revolutionary education will construct meaning and create value in young Peoples’ experiences. Recognizing that we’re always learning no matter what, because learning is a basic attribute of our humanity, such a movement will teach youth that they’re not the problem, they’re the solution to the problems all around them. What a breath of fresh air!

Following exemplary models like the Movement for Black Lives, the Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion, Me Too, Time’s Up, the March for our Lives, Youth Climate Strikes, the Dreamers and others even now emerging from a leaderful generation, we can support the mental health of young People.

We can apply the skills of elders, tapping into internationally leading groups like the Zapatista National Liberation Front, Via Campesina, the Transnational Institute, the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research, and, in Detroit, local groups like the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership, and the Detroit Independent Freedom Schools Movement (DIFSM), for the kind of crazy wisdom we’ll need. Collectively we have to face our scary future in ways that help make things better for all of us. If we don’t, we’re screwed.

Political and Social Action

In that context of intersectional organizing, global rebellion and extinction prevention, there is infinite productive work for all in retracing Karl Marx’s famous distinction between understanding our world and changing it. The trick, as generations of activists’ struggles, triumphs and bloody defeats have taught us over and over again, is to walk and maintain the fine lines between transforming the world and building institutions of the new world in the ruins of the old; between militant, class-conscious confrontations with power “over us” and our “power to” heal, grow, change and transform; between liberal reforms to relieve suffering and radical revolution to pull it out at the roots. Hard stuff. Let’s go to school and get to work!

A decade ago the city squares of the whole developed world and lots of other places echoed with the spontaneous cries of “Occupy! Connect! Create!” More recently our Indigenous brothers and sisters, “Idle No More”, rose up against genocidal fossil energy schemes, crying “Mini Wiconi!” (Water is Life). As the new decade dawns in 2020, People are once again in the streets all around the world battling neoliberal austerity and domination in all its toxic forms. The ancient wisdom of our humanity, like the young activists leading the cutting edge of today’s movements, all offer fabulous apocalyptic and revolutionary educational opportunities. We can discover the ideas, slogans, formations, networks, fractals and movement dynamics that are the only things that will get us through today’s nightmares. Key is the right kind of education, and acting on it with others. Let it grow.

Discovering Our Humanity

The first curricular principle of the Detroit Independent Freedom Schools Movement (DIFSM) says: “Education is not a commodity provided to students by teachers who fill them up with information. It is a dynamic transformative process based on human relationships and collaborative learning. Learning is universal and inevitable. People learn something no matter what we do, where, with whom or how we do it. It’s part of our humanity. Freedom Schools build the learning experience around this inherent aspect of our souls and spirits.

As briefly noted above, in some tragic cases of trauma, the learning can be very bad. In other tragic news, some of the most important learning often comes from failure and defeat. Whether arising from such violence, or out of consensual joint movement, apocalyptic and revolutionary education should evolve into a “learn-teach-lead” process, evoking leadership communication, catalyzing heightened individual and collective consciousness and enabling solutionary action. The interconnected realities of our individual learning processes and our developing collective consciousness empower movements to end suffering and create a democratic society. The ground and goal is always unveiling what Susan Raffo calls “a foundational instinct … a deep sense of our right to be alive, of the glory of our living connected selves.” Yes!!!

There are no guarantees with this program. No magic bullets will be issued for this revolution. And the apocalypse is already upon us. The assassinated South African youth leader Steven Biko famously said “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” Organizing around relentlessly determined apocalyptic and revolutionary education, it’s high time we disarmed the evil monsters who have brought this cataclysm upon us.


1) Covid-19 has sometimes been loosely described as the “Wayne Gretzky of viruses” because of a reputed ability to anticipate the future and act strategically, analogized to competitive advantages the hockey hero was said to use to meet his goals – essentially the ability to position one’s self to anticipate adversaries’ next moves. At this early stage it’s hard to know for sure why Covid-19 has so successfully and rapidly spread around the world. The Gretzky connection emphasizes the main point of this piece: What comes next? I apologize to non-hockey fan readers.

2) The 19th century British textile designer, poet, novelist, translator, and socialist activist William Morris’s famous metaphor held that we must cross “the river of fire” to become a critic of capital as a system. I’m thinking that’s what Wayne Gretzky would do here!