A Moment of Illumination


In the following narrative, our correspondent casts light on a little-understood episode of history.

“In fact, almost all the major breakthroughs are unexpected. It used to be we’d get bright people and just let them do whatever they want, and then suddenly, we’ve got the light bulb.”

-David Graeber, interviewed by PBS

Fiat lux. In the beginning, there were three of us—the communist, the insurrectionist, and I, your humble narrator. It was the turn of the century and we were wandering in darkness.

In a vacuum, light moves at a velocity of 299,792 km per second. We were moving considerably slower, not only on account of our ignorance of the metric system but also because we couldn’t see two feet in front of us in the abandoned warehouse. We had been forced to abandon our headlamps with our backpacks when we fled the train yard.

Some people abandon warehouses, other people abandon backpacks. That’s how it is under capitalism.

The Hungarian feminist filmmaker Ildiko Enyedi completed her masterpiece My Twentieth Century in 1989, a pivotal moment in history. The film opens in Menlo Park, New Jersey, as Thomas Edison demonstrates his new invention, the electric light bulb. To the rapture of an enchanted crowd, a display of light bulbs arranged throughout the branches of the trees glows like a scale model of the heavens. Enyedi affords the viewer a glimpse of a man with a visage not unlike Errico Malatesta—who did indeed greet the opening of the 20th century in New Jersey—contemplating one of these miraculous inventions.

Then the scene shifts and we see the stars of the true heavens. The cosmos always exceeds our clumsy imitations.

We found a stairwell and ascended through the gloom. The communist was grumpy. He always attributed our misfortunes to a lack of proper discipline. The insurrectionist was peevish. As she saw it, when things went wrong, it showed that we weren’t being brave enough. Myself, I was just thanking my lucky stars that we had gotten away from yard security.

Visible light is a kind of electromagnetic radiation—specifically, it is comprised of the wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation that fall within the range that the human retina can perceive. White light consists of a roughly equal mixture of all visible wavelengths. But there was no light of any sort in the hallway at the top of the stairs. We crept into the murk, hands before our faces, a single step at a time. Tenebrosity, that’s the literary term for what we were experiencing. Total darkness.

I was in the front. Space changes when you lose your ability to visually map it from a distance. When you have to feel every inch of it by hand, it expands. In the few tentative steps from the stairwell to the first door, it felt as though I covered as much ground as we had on the freight train over the past three days.

I fumbled through the door and made my way around the room. It was roughly square, without any doors other than the one I had entered, and apparently windowless.

“Even if there is a security guard outside the building, they won’t be able to see us in here,” I argued.

“Let’s post up here, then,” said the insurrectionist. “We can sleep until shift change, then go try to recover our packs.”

“I wish we had a light to read by,” said the communist. Every night, to catch up on the day’s news, he read a few pages of Das Kapital. Apparently, he’d brought it with him when he abandoned his pack.

I resumed my blind groping along the walls of the room. Eventually, I found a light switch and flipped it. No luck.

“What if the light bulb is just burned out, though? We don’t know for sure that the electricity is off.”

“Are you just walking around with a spare light bulb on you?” I demanded.

“There could be a utility closet,” answered the insurrectionist.

“That’s a good idea,” agreed the communist. “Where do you think that would be?”

“Do I look like a motherfucking theorist?” asked the insurrectionist from the darkness.

The insurrectionist and I stumbled back out into the hallway. I took one side of the hallway, she took the other, and we traced our fingers along the walls until she reached another door. She swung it open. “I feel shelves.” She had found the utility closet. “I found something! I think it’s a light bulb!”

We groped our way back to our room. But in the darkness, we couldn’t reach the ceiling to find the light fixture.

“How many anarchists does it take to change a light bulb?” I asked.

“We’re not here to change things for people,” said the insurrectionist. “The light bulb has to change itself.”

“‘Communism is not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality has to adjust itself,” quoted the communist. “It is the real movement that abolishes darkness.”

“So if we change the light bulb, it was communism that did it?” objected the insurrectionist. “Talk about gaslighting.”

“Lenin says ‘Communism is Soviet power plus the electrocution of the whole country,’” the communist answered.

I crept back into the hallway and resumed my search. Past the closet, I found another door. It, too, was unlocked. I stepped through it and immediately stubbed my toe on something in the murk. I reached out and felt something at hip level. A swivel chair.

I rolled the chair back down the hall into our room. The insurrectionist held it still while I stood on it, flailing my arms over my head in slow motion. And sure enough, there it was—the light fixture. I unscrewed the glass hemisphere that concealed it and lowered the glass to the insurrectionist, who passed me the light bulb from the hall closet in return. There was already a light bulb in the socket above me. I unscrewed it and handed it down to her.

“You know you can fill these with paint and throw them at police officers,” she informed me.

Gingerly rotating the new light bulb into the socket, I held my breath, hoping against hope. What were the odds that the power was still on in this abandoned building?

Light consists of energy quanta called photons that behave like particles in some cases and like waves in other cases. Sometimes we are atomized individuals, doing our lonely part to contribute to the collective struggle. Other times, we become something that transcends the sum of our parts. We become a wave of change.

And suddenly, everything was illuminated. In a flash, I could see the ceiling over me, I could see the room around us, I could see the dumbfounded faces of my comrades squinting up at me from below. I was Prometheus, stealing fire from our corporate overlords to light our dismal way. We had accomplished the unthinkable. Let there be light!

The communist got out his book. The insurrectionist started looking for things to steal. Flushed with success, I went back out into the hall.

Navigating by the ray of light from our room, I found my way back to the stairwell. I could see, now, that the stairs continued up. I ascended them two at a time, landing after landing. At the top, there was a ladder reaching up to a trap door.

The view from the top of the building was breathtaking. The whole city was laid out before us in all its excess. A hundred thousand households sleeping side by side, oblivious to their collective potential. Capitalism had left this building dead, but we had brought it back to life. If three of us could accomplish that, what could all of us accomplish, together?

Suddenly, the insurrectionist was at my side. We stood there, looking out across the city. We were not powerless individuals. We were the froth on the edge of a wave of change, about to crash across an unsuspecting society. We were an unstoppable force of transformation. Raising our eyes from the electric lights of the sleeping city to the canopy of stars above, we knew in our hearts that our story had only just begun. If we could change a light bulb, we could change the world.

“A light bulb came on.”

-“Performing Folk Punk: Agonistic Performances of Intersectionality,” Benjamin D. Haas