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In these situations, the circulation of such knowledge speeds up, as people carry on a new level of discussion and debate with others. When your body is on the line, your need to know is intensified. Politics is no longer a distant activity by specific actors to be watched on television but an immediate part of shared life experience in one’s own communities. Visitors to the city of Petrograd during the Russian Revolution noted the vibrancy of political discussion and debate everywhere they went, even among people who, not long before, would not have ventured an opinion. New levels of active participation can lead to a new need to know.The American radical John Reed was an eyewitness to the 1917 revolution in Russia. He commented on the excitement around the exchange of ideas, which included a passion for reading that for many meant acquiring basic literacy. “All Russia was learning to read, and reading—politics, economics, history—because the people wanted to know. . . . Russia absorbed reading matter like hot sand drinks water, insatiable” (Reed 1919: chap.1). And all that reading was accompanied by endless discussion: “Lectures, debates, speeches—in theatres, circuses, school-houses, clubs, Soviet meeting-rooms, Union headquarters, barracks. Meetings in the trenches at the Front, in village squares, factories” (Reed 1919: chap.1). He summed this up by saying, “For months in Petrograd, and all over Russia, every street-corner was a public tribune. In railway trains, street-cars, always the spurting up of impromptu debate, everywhere” (Reed 1919: chap. 1).Historically, democracy has developed only when people chose new forms of active participation and put their bodies on the line. Wendy Parkins (2000) writes that many feminist campaigns have “deployed forms of protest which emphasized female embodiment in their contestation of the political domain” (p. 72). People make and remake democracy with their own minds and bodies, moving from being spectators to actors by demonstrating, refusing, seizing, storming, speaking out, or listening. John Berger (1968) argues that the core of a mass demonstration is a show of potential force: “it demonstratesa force that is scarcely used” (p. 754). Even if the potential force is not deployed, large demonstrations get at least some of their power from the transformative potential of masses who dramatically outnumber police and can grind the city to a halt simply through filling the streets. Perhaps part of the let-down from a completely ritualized demonstration, in which participants feel they are going through the motions of walking from here to there, is that people recognize the gap between the potential power of the moment and what they actually achieve.
The Democratic Imagination144Nurturing DemocracyThe capacities developed through mass participation in a revolutionary situ-ation will fade over time, particularly if the postrevolutionary society does not nurture democratic capacities. The American poet Walt Whitman, writing more than 70 years after the American Revolution, was deeply concerned