The Fierce Wisdom of Demanding the Impossible: An Interview with Bill Ayers
A conversation with revolutionary, teacher and long-time organizer/activist Bill Ayers about his new book, Demand the Impossible! A Radical Manifesto.
The second in a series of interviews with transformative activists, organizers, writers and dreamers from the New Left and Freedom Movement of the 1960s through social and political movements of today.
Download the free Radical Democracy digital book, featuring 18 original interviews with activists and organizers from the Civil Rights and New Left Movements of the 1960s, through Black Lives Matters, Occupy and more. With 165 Shareable quotes and graphic memes, and an archive of manifestos and other radical documents.
Bill Ayers is a long-time anti-war and social justice organizer, education reformer, and former leader of Students for a Democratic Society [SDS]. He was co-founder of the Weather Underground, aka, the Weathermen, a militant and radical offshoot of SDS that famously declared war against the government of the United States in 1970.
Bill is a Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago [retired]. He is also the author of several books. His latest, Demand the Impossible! A Radical Manifesto, is available from Haymarket Books.
We recently spoke with Bill about revolutionary agency, Marx’s praise-song to capitalism, and building a mass movement in Donald Trump’s America.
Radical Democracy: You’ve written extensively on education reform and urban schools, and you’ve published two memoirs, Public Enemy and Fugitive Days. But Demand the Impossible! is something very different. It’s a rousing call to action — a radical manifesto, as the subtitle calls it. Why a manifesto, and why now?
Bill Ayers: My thinking was that people on the progressive left have a very excellent critique of war, of racism, of capitalism. We know what we’re against, but we spend, I think, far too little time on actualizing the vision of what we’re for, of making it manifest, of seeing it and working toward it. This book is an attempt to ask what it is we’re fighting for.
The title was meant to be ironic in a couple of ways. It’s taken from an epigram that appeared as graffiti all over the walls of Paris in 1968, and then migrated to the United States. But it’s attributed to Che Guevara, and the full quotation is, “Be realistic, demand the impossible.” I like the contradiction built into that; it reminds me that what we often take as a debate around issues is in a very narrow, unimaginative realm.
RD: Right. In a sense we’re letting the establishment dictate what is possible or impossible, or what’s considered radical.
BA: We debate whether we should have Obamacare or zombie-capitalist health insurance care. That’s a very narrow debate. I want the debate to extend to free medical care for all. With the police, we debate whether we should have this or that reform, and I want to ask, “What would policing look like in a democratic and free society?” I don’t want to take what’s given to us, and debate body cameras. I want to discuss the larger issue. And that’s what I’m calling “the impossible”.
The irony upon that irony is it’s far from impossible. Every one of the eight substantive issues I take up is not only possible, it’s well within the mainstream of American thought. Doing away with prisons, doing away with war, free medical care for all, a decent public school in every community. These aren’t radical ideas. These are mainstream ideas. They’re made to seem radical because of the anemic choices that are on offer. I’m saying that they are not only radical, but they’re possible, and let’s work toward them.
“Often the missing element in revolution isn’t critique: it’s confidence, it’s agency. It’s a sense that if we take an action we change the world. And when enough of us believe that, and take that collective action in the same direction, indeed we do change the world.”
RD: In the book, while talking about those issues, you repeatedly ask, What if? It mirrors a recurring theme in Radical Democracy — the necessity of invoking radical imagination, of collectively imagining new ways of doing things, to bring about real change. Why does this initial step of collective, radical imagination seem so important?
BA: If we don’t invoke that radical imagination, we end up debating only what’s acceptable in the mainstream, only what’s on offer from the powerful. Think of any moment of great change in history. For example, it’s impossible to imagine women having the right to vote at a certain point in history. It’s against the Constitution, it’s against the law, it’s against the founders, it’s against the Bible. Who could imagine such a thing? Yet the Suffragettes and the radicals who were their allies and comrades imagined it, fought for it, won the majority opinion, and women eventually won the right to vote.
Who could imagine an end to slavery in 1850? The Fugitive Slave Act was under discussion, but not slavery just being abolished. It was the major source of wealth in the entire country. No one could imagine it being abolished. And yet, not only could the people who were driving the conversation, those who were running away from slavery imagine it, but abolitionists began to imagine it. And eventually it led to a great Civil War, and then we could all imagine it. The world shifted.
I’m saying that we need to unleash our radical imaginations precisely because if we don’t, we get stuck in the status quo in a way that’s unacceptable to the future — and that the status quo is actually a source of violence and pain to the marginalized and the oppressed, and so we have to imagine beyond that. I don’t think our tactics and our strategies can be as fully developed as they ought to be if we can’t imagine and state what we’re fighting for.
RD: Right. It’s easy to get people to agree that the system sucks, but a shared vision is powerful. It inspires. It also means you’re all pulling in the same direction.
BA: We had this extraordinary conversation in our living room many, many years ago with Albie Sachs, the great freedom fighter from African National Congress, and Rashid Khalidi, the great Palestinian scholar. Albie told a story about how they often would take the fighters from the ANC on a retreat, maybe a day, maybe several days, and spend that time focused on the goals of the anti-Apartheid struggle. He argued, very persuasively, that they would have gone off the track many times, not only lost energy and lost focus, but they would have lost their way in terms of tactics and strategies that they were using at that moment, if they didn’t know what they were fighting for. They had to posit a vision of a non-racist society, of an un-oppressive society, in order for them to keep their revolution going on the right track.
RD: Early in the book you talk about your meeting with another revolutionary, Manolis Glezos, the Greek resistance fighter and writer and politician. You quote him saying, “I’m interested in people collectively discovering their own power. That’s an entirely different thing from an individual or a party in power.” It seems this sense of people discovering their own power, their own agency, happens in cyclical waves or surges. Are we experiencing one of those now? Or is that beside the point?
BA: No, it’s not beside the point. It’s a central point, and my own read is that we are experiencing that now. But time will tell. I’m not certain that we are. It feels to me like we’re on the verge of the fourth American Revolution, in the centuries-old struggle for black freedom. We had the American Revolution, we had the struggle against slavery, and then we had the great Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s, and now here we are with Black Lives Matter. It doesn’t feel like a wholly new thing — it feels like a continuation. And the detractors of the movement today sound exactly like the detractors of the Civil Rights Movement, or the detractors of the abolitionist movement.
Some liberals, say, “Well, it’s good, but it’s not realistic.” Exactly! We’re demanding the impossible. Others say, “It’s disrespectful, go slow, take it easy.” You can read the words of Martin Luther King or Ella Baker or many others, to repudiate that argument. But yes, I think we’re in the midst of something huge, and I think the notion of agency is central.
Think historically for a minute about the trajectory of African Americans from the abolition of slavery to the Civil Rights Movement. For that whole hundred years, black people rose up, black people resisted, black people tried to fight against the regime of terror, of lynching. They tried to fight against segregation and Jim Crow. They tried to fight to get the vote and to have a decent education and to get jobs. Then something happened, and it’s a little bit magical or a little bit unpredictable. Somewhere in the late 1950s, early 1960s, a critical mass of people got it into their head, not just that they knew they were oppressed, but that if they acted, collectively and individually, they could find a new world. They could achieve something that had not been achieved. When enough people adopted that consciousness, then the status quo became unendurable, and it was crushed and changed and moved forward. That’s how I think revolutions work.
RD: It seems connected to that idea of radical imagination, of creating a shared vision that can then be acted upon. Things get interesting when enough people share that new vision.
BA: What Glezos was pointing out is that often the missing element in revolution isn’t critique: it’s confidence, it’s agency. It’s a sense that if we take an action we change the world. And when enough of us believe that, and take that collective action in the same direction, indeed we do change the world. We’ve seen it in our lifetimes. We’ve seen people say, enough is enough, we’re not going to take it anymore, and I’m going to take a risk.
Take the question of sexual identity, the question of queer rights. The oppression of homosexual people was well known by gay people themselves, but more of them started saying, “I’m coming out, I’m going to risk my job, I’m going to risk my relationship with my parents, I’m going to make a political argument, I’m going to say this is my humanity.” When enough people said that, when enough people had the agency to act on that, yes indeed, the world changed.
Now we have, once again on the agenda, the Black Freedom Movement saying, it’s not enough. We have not won our freedom, we are still a lower caste in this country, and we’re going to change that. And that’s a very exciting thing to participate in.
RD: Yes. And it feels like as more people participate in today’s movements, more people are or rediscovering that this is a transgenerational struggle. That there is a rich history to draw from. That reminds me of another interesting moment in the book, when you revisit The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels.
BA: Yeah, that was fun to write.
RD: It’s in the Radical Democracy archive because everyone’s heard of it and references it, but not so many have actually read it. I read the Manifesto for the first time only recently. I don’t consider myself a Marxist, but half way through, I started wondering if I was unknowingly a closet Marxist.
BA: Exactly. There are a couple of interesting things about it. One, that whenever people are in motion, people reach for The Communist Manifesto. It’s an extraordinary thing. All over the world, people reach for the Manifesto, because they want to understand what they’re in the midst of.
I was asked to go to four different Occupy sites and do workshops on The Communist Manifesto, because so many people don’t know what’s in it. They know it exists. They’ve heard of it, but they think it’s either a blueprint for building a communist dictatorship, or it’s somehow this thoroughgoing plan to make a communist revolution. And none of that is true.
“It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades… The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.”
The Communist Manifesto
What it is, instead, is an extraordinary praise song to capitalism as a moment in history that overcomes feudalism. It’s in such vaulted rhetoric that people when people read it, they can’t quite believe it. It talks about capitalism as the most revolutionary economic system, constantly needing to transform the world in order to revolutionize the means of production, in order to continue the drive for profit. It’s a great praise song for capitalism, except for one thing. It also points out that capitalism, in the end, turns everything into cash, or the cash nexus, and everyone is dehumanized in that. It brings with it both great progress from feudalism, and greater immiseration of the people than we’ve ever known.
RD: I was surprised at how short it was. I was expecting a huge, difficult tome.
BA: It’s a very quick read, it’s a very easy read. It is a vision of history that shows you an arrow pointing toward progress, but it’s also a humanistic document. It’s talking about human liberation in terms that anyone can understand. I love reading the Manifesto, and I think that it’s one of the greatest works about economic democracy ever written, because it’s so to the point, and easy to understand, and I think it makes a lot of sense.
I got a big kick out of the talk of socialism during the first Obama campaign, and then during the Bernie Sanders campaign. Bernie just said, “I’m a socialist,” and you could see kids all over the country going on the Internet and typing in “socialism”. And what they get back is, “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” And the kid says, shit, that sounds great! that sounds biblical! And it really does. I mean, what could be more sensible?
RD: People often get caught debating the best definition of socialism. But that core idea of compassion, of cooperation, seems very basic, very sensible, as you say.
BA: The ordinary, everyday functional — or dysfunctional — family operates on that same socialist ideal. Nobody makes their toddler dance on a table for tips in order to get fed. The same is true for the disabled family member, and the same is true for grandma. Nobody actually makes them contribute to the wealth of the family. They simply get what they need, and those who can contribute do contribute. Think of your own family growing up, or the families that we make. If it’s true for the family, why not your block, why not your neighborhood, why not your community, why not your city, why not the country, and then why not the world?
RD: As I read it, it dawned on me that it was the first insightful analysis, or even description, of capitalism I had ever read.
BA: That’s right.
RD: Capitalism is rarely talked about as an arbitrary system. It’s more about, well, how do you fiddle the knobs, about taxes, or markets or what have you, to maximize profits — and to send those profits in a certain direction — up to the top 1%. But here was someone who was admitting yes, this is an arbitrary system, and here’s how it works, and here’s what it tends to do, which is produce products — and wealth, for some.
BA: I think you’re right. And our language betrays us, because we conflate capitalism and democracy, but those are not the same things. We should be talking about capitalism, socialism, communism, fascism, feudalism. Democracy is a different matter.
The idea that capitalism is democratic is false. Capitalism is far from democracy. The fact that we have a putatively fractured, insufficient and failed, in many ways, democratic political system overlaid on capitalism doesn’t change the reality. The reality is that capitalism and democracy are two distinct things, and when we talk about capitalism and alternatives to capitalism we should being talking about socialism, not authoritarianism or autocracy.
Democracy, autocracy, authoritarianism are on one level. Capitalism, socialism, communism are another matter altogether.
“We need to focus our attention on building a mighty mass movement — opposed to white supremacy, American nationalism, war, bigotry, xenophobia, hatred of women — that can fight to overthrow capitalism and build a society fit for all, a place of peace and freedom, joy and justice.”
RD: So, we to revisit and replace some of these old, false associations. The last chapter in the book is called “Beginning Again: This American Dream”, exploring the idea that we need to revisit and replace the American Dream — or create a new one. Could you talk about that a bit?
BA: First, I think it’s worth all of us asking, what is the American Dream? The American Dream has been so hijacked by the capitalist class, by the one percent, by the wealthy, that it could mean anything. You can breath any story into this myth of the American dream. Does it mean two kids in college? A two-car garage? A swimming pool in the backyard? These are mythologies that we put forward, and it all gets summed up by saying, I’m living the American dream. Anyone can inscribe into that statement anything they want to.
What I try to do is a step back from that, and say two things. One is that American exceptionalism is immoral and hateful. The idea that we are the chosen people is as hateful as any other group claiming moral superiority or geographic or historical superiority over other people. We are not better than other people, we are like other people. Our American dream should be to live as a nation among nations, not as the uber-nation that takes itself out of any kind of measure of what it means to be a moral member of the human race or the human community.
Then the question is, what can we dream for? I think the notion of the American dream as endless consumption, as dominance of the world, of exploitation of the planet, ad infinitum, I think these are false dreams. These lead to nightmares.
We ought to be dreaming and thinking about how we can become a nation among nations, how we can live in peace and in balance with both the physical earth and the rest of the peoples on the earth. If we can’t get that far in our imagination, we are doomed. There’s an urgency to the book, because it’s way past time for us to get right with the planet, the earth, and to get right with each other, or we’re spiraling downward into catastrophic climate change, endless war, permanent war. And the future, while it will be different than today, it doesn’t have to be better than today, and that depends on us.
I’m making an argument for fighting right now, here and now, for more democracy, more participation, more transparency, more peace, more civic involvement. And I’m fighting against another vision of what the future could be, which is permanent war, nuclear war, work camps, slavery. Those things are on offer, too. I think we have to be serious about the moment being now, and we have a responsibility to seize the moment.
RD: After Trump’s election, the only change “on offer from the powerful,” as you put it earlier, has been to reform the Democratic Party. Working within that narrowly defined debate seems likely to sustain the two-party electoral system that brought us here, and prohibit real change.
BA: I can’t predict what will come, or how or when people will rise up, but the Democrats’ post-mortem is already anemic, narcissistic, myopic, and wrong. They will focus on “clarity of message” and “refocusing on class,” missing the fact that over three decades of bipartisan economic and foreign policy have brought us here: permanent war, a hollowed-out economy, masses of people trapped in meaninglessness and hurting badly, some of them wrapped in the delusion of American Exceptionalism.
We need to focus our attention on building a mighty mass movement — opposed to white supremacy, American nationalism, war, bigotry, xenophobia, hatred of women — that can fight to overthrow capitalism and build a society fit for all, a place of peace and freedom, joy and justice.
“Eventually, when we see the environmental movement linked up with the undocumented and unafraid movement, linked up with Black Lives Matter, linked up with the peace movement and the abolitionist movement, at that point we can imagine a massive social movement that will move history forward.”
RD: There are so many new folks joining the movement right now, and many others on the fence, considering jumping in, of seizing the moment. What would you hope someone like that takes away from reading your radical manifesto?
BA: The situation you describe is a universal situation. It’s always true that it’s a few activists who rise up to begin. It’s a few revolutionaries who move toward making history. That’s always the case. Most people do wait, and are busy surviving and making a living and taking care of the kids, and it’s all understandable. I hope people will take a moment — not just with this book, but with the conditions that they see all around them — and open their eyes to the reality that’s before them, and be astonished at both the beauty and the ecstasy all around, as well as the unnecessary suffering in every corner. And then begin to identify with other people, not as distant and alien and different, but as just like us.
Look at the immigration crisis, which is caused by U.S. led invasions and wars. The U.S. wants to pretend that it’s an act of God, or it’s just an act of nature, and it’s not our responsibility. But it’s absolutely our responsibility. Just as the United States was slow to recognize that the Jews of Europe were being destroyed in the 1930s and ’40s, the United States is hopelessly slow to recognize it’s responsibility in the refugee crisis, and it’s responsibility to take people who are fleeing fascism and genocide.
If we can open our eyes and see that other people are just like us, then we can act – and that’s really the rhythm, in my mind, of citizenship and of moral behavior. I would hope that people would feel a moral responsibility to get active, to join in. You open your eyes, you’re astonished, you act, and then you doubt.
RD: Is that “doubt” to allow for reconsidering or re-calibrating your analysis and action?
BA: Yes. Doubt means rethinking, reimagining, reconsidering. Doubt is an antidote to dogma, to incuriosity, to self-referencing. Get woke, be amazed, act, doubt. Repeat for a lifetime.
But if you’re asking, well, what’s the best thing to join or what’s the strategic way to join? I don’t have that in mind. In a world as out of balance as this world, anywhere you dive in could be useful. If your concern is war and peace, dive in there. If your concern is the environmental destruction all around us, dive in there. If your concern is the racist attacks on black communities, dive in there.
And eventually, if you dive in deeply enough – and this is where the word “radical” becomes operative — you will connect to other movements. Eventually, when we see the environmental movement linked up with the undocumented and unafraid movement, linked up with Black Lives Matter, linked up with the peace movement and the abolitionist movement, at that point we can imagine a massive social movement that will move history forward.
And that’s what I hope we’re going to witness in our lifetime.
Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
His new book, Demand the Impossible! A Radical Manifesto, is available from Haymarket Books.
Some of Bill’s writing can be found here.
Excerpted from the soon to be published ebook, Radical Democracy: an inventory of transformational ideas, documents, quotes and conversations