Revolutionary Suicide: Risking Everything to Transform Society and Live Fully

Rachel Corrie

"The cost of revolutionary change is people's willingness to pay with their own lives," Pinkard writes. "This is what Rachel Corrie knew when she ... refused to move and was killed by an Israeli army bulldozer in the Gaza Strip." Credit: Cassandra Conlin.

Global capitalism is a system, or rather, an interlocking network of systems. Permeating every area of our lives, it operates much like the Catholic Church operated in Europe before the Reformation. It transcends nationhood but is immersed in politics. Its faults and hypocrisies can easily be pointed to, but that does little to sway the hearts and minds of the vast majority of people who have faith in its ideals or power. Its influence permeates every aspect of our daily lives. It forms a universe that controls our entire life cycle and rituals that guide the cycles of our days. It shapes what we have come to expect and to view as “normal.” Indeed, it is more powerful than the church ever was; Marx nailed his theses on the door and capitalism has only grown in power, crushing its reformation in a way the Catholic Church never could.

It is, of course, ludicrous to believe that identity politics as it is conventionally understood could do much at all to halt the voracious appetite of a force this powerful. But it is similarly ludicrous to believe that all we need to do is to “give up identity politics” and do “real” and “important” work on capitalism, or to believe that if we address the economic system, racism will be resolved because it is secondary to economic oppression. White supremacy constantly works against our efforts to build principled coalitions to confront global capitalism.

The problem with narrow forms of identity politics is that they assume that groups of people organized around identity can achieve liberation from oppression in silos—in other words, as separate, individual identity groups. But the truth is that we are not individually salvageable.

I’d like to present an alternative to conventional identity politics, one that requires that we understand the way that capitalism itself has grown out of a very particular kind of identity politics—white supremacy—aimed at securing “special benefits” for one group of people. It is not sufficient to speak only of identities of race, class, and gender. I believe we must also speak of identities in relation to domination. To what extent does any one of us identify with the forces of domination and participate in relations that reinforce that domination and the exploitation that goes with it? In what ways and to what extent are we wedded to our own upward mobility, financial security, good reputation, and ability to “win friends and influence people” in positions of power? Or conversely, do we identify (not wish to identify or pretend to identify but actually identify by putting our lives on the line) with efforts to reverse patterns of domination, empower people on the margins (even when we are not on the margins ourselves), and seek healthy, sustainable relations?

When we consider our identities in relation to domination, we realize the manifold ways in which we have structured our lives and desires in support of the very economic and social system that is dominating us. To shake free of this cycle, we need to embrace a radical break from business as usual. We need to commit revolutionary suicide. By this I mean not the killing of our bodies but the destruction of our attachments to security, status, wealth, and power. These attachments prevent us from becoming spiritually and politically alive. They prevent us from changing the violent structure of the society in which we live. Revolutionary suicide means living out our commitments, even when that means risking death.

When Huey Percy Newton, the cofounder of the Black Panther Party, called us to “revolutionary suicide,” it appears that he was making the same appeal as Jesus of Nazareth, who admonished, “Those who seek to save their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives for the sake of [the planet] will save them.” Essentially, both movement founders are saying the same thing. Salvation is not an individual matter. It entails saving, delivering, rescuing an entire civilization. This cannot be just another day at the bargain counter. The salvation of an entire planet requires a total risk of everything—of you, of me, of unyielding people everywhere, for all time. This is what revolutionary suicide is. The cost of revolutionary change is people’s willingness to pay with their own lives.

This is what Rachel Corrie knew when she, determined to prevent a Palestinian home in Rafah from being demolished, refused to move and was killed by an Israeli army bulldozer in the Gaza Strip. This is what Daniel Ellsberg knew when he made public the Pentagon Papers. It’s what Oscar Schindler knew when he rescued over 1,100 Jews from Nazi concentration camps, what subversive Hutus knew when they risked their lives to rescue Tutsis in the Rwandan genocide.

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2 thoughts on “Revolutionary Suicide: Risking Everything to Transform Society and Live Fully

  1. I agree we should strive for greater and greater spiritual freedom from present systems and structures and always ready to improve them if we can. I also believe we should emphasize the positive and reflect on all the good that is done and has been done. I like No More Enemies by Deb Reich. We have the ability to inhale negative experiences and then breathe out love, the ultimate power that sustains the world. There is only one tribe now and we all belong. We will all flourish and prosper, all together, or not: it is our choice.

  2. Re Pinkard’s need for the “destruction of our attachments to security, status, wealth, and power,” I agree very much, though this becomes more sensitive when family is involved. Let me hope I can live in it.
    A problem with capitalism is that it evolved contemporaneously with democracy. The two appear to have been linked, destroying the feudal system. But wealth, power, and status produce inequality and dominance, in socialism and feudalism as in capitalism.