Seamos realistas y hagamos lo imposible! [We are realists, we do the impossible!]
Che Guevara n.d.
Che Guevara’s famous zen-like declaration has appeared in different languages, often as graffiti and with slightly different wording, all over the world. I first encountered it in Italian as “Siamo realisti, esigiamo l’impossibile”, a version which somehow seems more demanding, more peremptory (esigiamo means “we demand”).
Whatever the exact original wording, the quotation strikes at a central, chronic problem of human life that infuriates revolutionaries of every type and era. This is the inability, in various contexts, to imagine that things could ever be other than they are, and in a different frame of reference. The great class traitor will have known that history is littered with the bones of those who said that it couldn’t be done or shouldn’t be done or wasn’t even needed (creativity quotes). It’s a state of mind that links to Donald Rumsfeld’s famous description of unknown unknowns: we don’t know what we don’t know. It is the paradigm shift.
I’ve always been fascinated by the paradigm shift. The paradigm that we shift from is based on, and governed by, our assumptions. Tricky things, assumptions. Yet it is difficult to do without them. They are familiar, and they seem dependable. If they are ever examined, they look like useful shorthand for whole areas of cause and effect: sensible, unassailable. Too often, however, they conceal potential threats.
Threats like attacks, but from where? “In war,” said Helmut von Moltke the elder,”the enemy will usually have three courses of action open to him; of these, he will invariably choose the fourth.” Dangerous assumptions represent types of risk: from “the grazing for our animals will still be here when we come back this way next year” to “you can’t bomb arms factories, they’re private property” to “we can’t possibly leave until the Afghan army is up to strength, possibly in 2014”. These three particular assumptions have this in common: holding on to each of them involves serious risks to people’s lives.
This is why governments have a vital responsibility, as far as possible, not to assume anything but to question again and again. They owe it to their citizens to think up every possibility, however far fetched, examine it, work out what the best response might be and test it. More than any other institution, governments cannot afford to be in the position of not knowing that they don’t know something important.
Looked at from the other direction, of course, disruptions in paradigms offer opportunities, as much to the heretic, the insurgent or pioneer as to a field marshal like Moltke. A whole new way of thinking or doing something, in whatever field, has dynamic potential. The shift to the new frame of reference offers new chances, and new demands – a new order, perhaps – unheard of till now.
That is an alluring promise, but one that only revolutionaries like Che Guevara welcome unreservedly. He knew that, if you “insist on the impossible”, sooner or later it will come and then everything will change. He would have known that violence helps to hurry things along, and gets results, and he certainly had no problem about that. But for the rest of us, who may want change but could do without some of the implications, it is a case of “be careful what you wish for.” If only we had known what we know now!
How Ethiopia’s impossibility became reality
In the second half of the 1970s Ethiopia underwent a painful rerun of the French and Russian revolutions. In both those cases, an event dramatising people’s despair and wish for the monarch to do something, had preceded the revolution by some years and showed for the first time that any change – a change for the better – might be possible.
In Ethiopia, that event occurred in December 1960, when students demonstrated against the autocrat emperor Haile Selassie and were crushed. Years later, after Ethiopia had deposed the old lion and descended into a chaos of fear, torture, revenge and massacre, I met one of those who had carried a banner in 1960. He told me that his generation had wanted change and thought that the emperor could deliver it, or else a democratic order come into being without him. “We never for a moment imagined,” he said, “that it would lead to all this. If only we had known!” He represented those educated unfortunates who initiated the change, tried to manage it but lost any control of it and were then obliterated by the monstrous Robespierres who seized the revolution and made it hell. Could it have been foreseen?
For Ethiopia, 1960 was the last year it was ‘impossible’ to conceive of anyone criticising God’s Anointed. Haile Selassie learned from the demonstrations and made changes, too little too late. The paradigm shifted under his feet, and then under everyone else’s, again and again. Assumptions became heresies with bewildering speed. At every stage of the descent into hell, what was thought to be impossible became possible, then likely, then reality, then ‘old thinking.’ Che was right: realistically, the impossible will come about, in its own time.
Or perhaps he wanted the impossible because he was just bored – one of those who thrive on chaos. “In a letter to his mother in 1954, written in Guatemala, where he witnessed the overthrow of the revolutionary government of Jacobo Arbenz, he wrote: ‘It was all a lot of fun, what with the bombs, speeches, and other distractions to break the monotony I was living in’.” (Alvaro Vargas Llosa, 2005) Refracted through Che’s anomie, the unfolding of the impossible begins to look like a journey into the inevitable. But don’t assume. Be realistic. Be prepared. Be careful what you wish for.