Confronting Contradictions on the Path to Revolution: A Review of “Demand the Impossible!“

Activists occupy a rotunda of the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, to protest against police brutality. (Photo: Erik Davis)Activists occupy a rotunda of the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, on December 20, 2014, to protest against police brutality. (Photo: Erik Davis)

Attention all movement-makers! The time is ripe for radical social change and the new book from educator and activist Bill Ayers is sure to inspire you. Demand the Impossible! explores alternatives to today’s endless war, environmental destruction and economic crisis, and suggests strategies for building a more peaceful world. Click here to order this book from Truthout today!

Demand the Impossible! A Radical Manifesto, by Bill Ayers, Haymarket Books, 2016

There is intentional contradiction in the title of Bill Ayers’ book, Demand the Impossible! A Radical Manifesto. Che Guevara juxtaposed “Be realistic, demand the impossible!” as he was helping to lead an impossibly successful people’s revolution against a US-backed corrupt and repressive Cuban government. While seemingly absurd on the surface, his words, combined with action, reinforce Margaret Mead’s assertion that we should “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

It is important to note that a “demand” is action, and this book is about action in the face of a government that, as Noam Chomsky argues, works to “strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion.” Ayers quotes Chomsky to explain the radicalism of his book: It is radical as an intentional effort to reject the framing of acceptable discourse. Ayers’ words pose a direct challenge to the status quo that profits from a passive and obedient public.

In this sense, the book is an intellectual Days of Rage. As a member of the Weathermen in October 1969, Ayers led a Days of Rage four-day direct action that involved property destruction and confrontations with police in Chicago. The strategic goal was to break out of what was considered to be acceptable patterns of protest and demonstration: “The militants, the young people, the students had been the heart and soul of every demonstration since 1965 but we were always being contained and controlled by liberals, and we thought that we ought to call a demonstration in which we weren’t contained and controlled. What we were hoping for was a huge outpouring of militants.” Ayers acknowledges that the Days of Rage were “a colossal failure in the sense that we didn’t mobilize lots of people” but justifies that, “We were making decisions in the middle of things and anyone who thinks they knew what should have been done in 1969 is probably kidding themselves and to those people I’d like to say, ‘What should we do now?'”

Ayers’ own answer to this question is Demand the Impossible! It is a manifesto that combats the enslavement of a dogmatic “culture of obedience” by communicating a message of hope and urging collective action. It refuses the limited range of debate and steps outside the intellectual box of what is deemed to be acceptable discourse. It asks radical questions. It envisions radical futures.

The book describes “the known world” as it is and in the process paints a world unsettlingly reminiscent of 1984 and V for Vendetta, wherein government engages in permanent war and an ever-expanding military; police become occupying armies within poor communities, enemies are stereotyped and scapegoated, the panopticon is always watching, and fear is constructed to generate and ensure obedience and patriotic loyalty. Alongside, corporations exploit public spaces, enlarge the gap between the haves and have-nots, destroy the environment with impunity, and numb the masses with perpetual consumerism and the convenience of eliminating privacy via accessibility. In collusion, the military industrial complex of privatized prisons, militarized police and broad parallel strategies of imperialism abroad, and the entrenchment of racist structures domestically eliminate the possibility of real democratic participatory discourse. And yet, in the midst of this bleak reality, Ayers assures us that “there are still choices!”

As a thought experiment, Demand is inspiring and fascinating. Ayers is incredibly adept at using anecdotes, facts and simple questions to cut to the heart of the matter: “Why is it easier to imagine the end of the world (in movies and comics and novels) than it is to imagine the end of prisons? Or the end of capitalism?” The book is a celebration of activists, while simultaneously leading one to repeatedly ask, “Why am I not paying closer attention?” and “How did I not know that?”

Without saying it, Ayers is encouraging us all to ask “Who is in control?” and “What does it take to gain control?” But he is also offering an affirmation of the potential and the value of activist struggle:

Activists announce through their lives and their work that a new world is in the making. We can create a community of agitators and transform this corner of the world into a place that we want to inhabit. We can identify ourselves as citizens of a country that does not yet exist and has no map, and become that new nation’s pioneers and cartographers — and through our common actions bring a more assertive and vibrant public into being.

This occurs when we envision an alternative, reject the dominant paradigm and believe in the potential of action.

That action succeeds when it mobilizes the masses to demand “social or community ethics.” Collectively, we have lost sight of the common good. We are trained to believe that accumulation is a virtue, individualism is empowering and self-interest fosters innovation. But Ayers argues that “to be an ethical actor and a person of moral character in an unjust social order requires something more: to work in common to change that society, to rewrite its rules and its narrative, to come together with others in order to rise up and resist.”

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Bill Ayers - Demand the Impossible! A Radical Manifesto

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Just like the title, the book evokes contractions. It inspires and encourages us to hope while revealing horrific statistics about the reality of militarization, prisons, the economy, debt, policing, health care, education and the environment. It celebrates action against the entrenchment of the United States as a “crypto-fascist übernation” while accepting responsibility for its evolution: “it is us.” It rejects the US as “the indispensable nation” as it acknowledges the basis of “the irresistible comfort food of all clichés — it may not be healthy, but it feels good going down.” Ayers denies that he is an optimist, but he admits he is hopeful. Through his manifesto, he doesn’t let us off the hook for where we are, but reminds us that we have choices about where we go from here: “Rejecting the suffocating dogma and entangling repercussions of the American Dream is a step toward connecting with our own more authentic human hopes, our community plans and projects, our human-sized dreams and aspirations.”

The contradictions revealed through Demand the Impossible! are intentional. Ayers is confronting us through his manifesto, demanding that we recognize the world as it is, make the effort to consider what we want it to be, collaborate to put an alternative vision into collective action and believe. The book puts him “up in our grill,” challenging us to care, to struggle, to sacrifice and to want something better. It is a continuation of his lifelong struggle to reject the framing of acceptable debate and action by demonstrating alternatives. It is a pen-and-paper Days of Rage, an embodiment of the mantra that “the duty of a revolutionary is to make the revolution,” an elaboration of the conviction that “a single spark can start a prairie fire.”