Be Realistic. Demand the Impossible

A favorite slogan of the Situationists during the social upheavals in Europe during May 1968 was "Be Realistic. Demand the impossible". Stretch out, dare to dream, go against the flow, and your dreams just might come true. The slogan might have been written to describe the mission of Richard Stallman, the one true begetter of GNU, the General Public License (GPL) and the free software movement, who has dedicated his life to realizing the dream of an operating system that is written from scratch and is totally free.

Stallman is an implacable spirit, and has been likened to an Old Testament prophet - "a kind of geek Moses bearing the GNU GPL commandments, and trying to drag his hacker tribe to the promised land of freedom whether they want to go or not. His long hair, which falls thickly to his shoulders, full beard, and intense gaze doubtless contribute to the effect." (Glyn Moody - Rebel Code p29).

As this suggests, Stallman is an ascetic individual who brooks no compromise, and has devoted his life and fortune, including the $240,000 "genius grant" he was awarded by the MacArthur Foundation in 1990, to wandering the world with his battered laptop, evangelizing and preaching the necessity of free software to anybody who will listen. "The only reason we have a wholly free operating system", he told Moody, "is because of the movement that said we want an operating system that is wholly free, not 90 per cent free. If you don't have freedom as a principle, you can never see a reason not to make an exception. There are constantly going to be times when for one reason or another there's some practical convenience in making an exception."

Stallman claims that the greatest effect that the MacArthur grant had on his lifestyle was that it made it easier for him to register to vote. Stallman was living in his office. The authorities refused to believe that his office was also his place of residence until a newspaper article on the MacArthur fellowship verified his claim.

"I live very cheaply. I basically still live like a student because I never wanted to stop," he told Michael Gross in 1999. "Cars, big houses have no appeal to me. No appeal at all. I wasn't a slave of appetite for money, and that enabled me to do something worth doing. That's why, when I started the GNU project, I also started growing my hair. I did that because I wanted to say I'd come to agree with one aspect of the hippie movement: don't focus on material success as a goal in life."

Stallman's ascetic and uncompromising vision hasn't been universally popular, even among the hackers who have benefited from his dedication. But the objective of free software does not begin or end with GNU/Linux, the GNU Hurd, or any other operating system, language or application that has been, or may be, developed on the open model that the GPL facilitates. Stallman doesn't really care whether free software works better and is more efficient, so long as the software is free.

"It's not about money", he says, "it's about freedom. If you think it's about money you've missed the point. I want to use a computer in freedom, to cooperate, to not be restricted or prohibited from sharing. The GNU/Linux system is catching on somewhat more now. The system is becoming popular for practical reasons. It's a good system. The danger is people will like it because it's practical and it will become popular without anyone having the vaguest idea of the ideals behind it, which would be an ironic way of failing."

Stallman recounts that when he founded the GNU project in September 1983, people said, "Oh, this is an infinitely hard job; you can't possibly write a whole system like Unix. How can we possibly do that much? It would be nice, but it's just hopeless."

Stallman's response was that he was going to do it anyway. "This is where I am great. I am great at being very, very stubborn and ignoring all sorts of reasons why you should change your goal, reasons that many other people will be susceptible to. Many people want to be on the winning side. I didn't give a damn about that. I wanted to be on the side that was right, and even if I didn't win, at least I was going to give it a good try."

Nine years later Linus Torvalds announced to comp.os.minix: "I'm doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won't be big and professional like GNU) for 386(486) AT clones." In Stallman's view the Linux kernel is just one part of the operating system. "There is no operating system called Linux. The OS called Linux is GNU. Linux is a program - a kernel. A kernel is one part of an OS, the lowest level program in the OS that keeps track of other programs running, and apportions memory and processor time among them."

Stallman's controversial assertion that Linux should properly be known as GNU/Linux is motivated by his desire that "people understand that the system exists because of an idealistic philosophy. Call it Linux and it defeats the philosophy. It's a very serious problem. Linux is not the system. Linux is one piece of it. [...] The idealistic vision of the GNU project is the reason we have this system."

Stallman's special contribution to the free software movement has been to raise awareness of the legal and proprietary obstacles to the free distribution of software and ideas. The universal language of contributors to open source projects (and the software industry in general) has been informed by the philosophical and political grounding provided by Stallman's writings, especially his insights into the nature of the law surrounding software copyrights and patents.

In the introduction to 'Free Software, Free Society', a collection of Richard Stallman's essays and lectures, published by the GNU press, Lawrence Lessig, professor of law at Stanford University, declares that "Every generation has its philosopher - a writer or artist who captures the imagination of a time. Sometimes these philosophers are recognized as such; often it takes generations before the connection is made real. But recognized or not, a time gets marked by the people who speak its ideals, whether in the whisper of a poem, or the blast of a political movement. Our generation has a philosopher. He is not an artist, or a professional writer. He is a programmer."

Stallman is not only the (perhaps accidental) philosopher and conscience of the free software movement, but is regarded by many as the ultimate hacker, having contributed many of the basic tools that made the existence of the Linux kernel possible in the first place. Stallman's code still represents the greatest single contribution of any individual to the average Linux distribution. Many developers regard Emacs, Stallman's first great software creation, as the ultimate operating system within an operating system. The GNU tools written by Stallman and the FSF, (most significantly the GNU compiler, gcc), were the prerequisite for building the kernel that became Linux.

Stallman's greatest achievement, the GNU General Public License (GPL), has bestowed many benefits on users and developers alike, not all of which were necessarily foreseen at the time of its creation. The license and its preamble are the profound exposition of Stallman's clarity of purpose, to liberate software from the shackles of its proprietary chains, and to allow hackers (in the original meaning of the word, "enthusiastic computer programmers who share their work with others"), the freedom to develop and grow, and share their code.

The essential ingredient of the GPL is the concept of Copyleft, which uses the power of copyright to ensure that free software remains free. Copyleft inverts copyright law by asserting that software adapted from GPL'd software and released to the public must also be as free as the version of the software from which it was adapted. The beauty of the GPL, as any accomplished software developer will recognize, is that like a piece of elegantly written code, it has a simplicity and transparency all of its own. The license fulfills its demanding objective, of protecting and promoting the principles of free software, without ambiguity or compromise, and as such is a reflection of the determination and personality of Stallman, who willed GNU, the GPL, and the free software movement, into being.

The measure of Stallman's achievement is that the GPL has turned the assumptions of the software industry on their head. Initially, free software, the continuation of the ideals Stallman learned at MIT's AI lab in the early 70s, was dismissed as implausible and impractical - a playground for hackers, hippies and geeks - but against the odds, free software has become an acceptable paradigm for software development, and the lost and restless hacker community has begun to find a home...

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete" - R. Buckminster Fuller

Richard Hillesley

Richard Stallman: High School Misfit, Symbol of Free Software, MacArthur-Certified Genius:

See also:
Hacking after Midnight
Roads to the GPL


Wow. Moses?


Moses/Stallman <-- div 0 error

stallman is a c__t

he is not a prophet - he is a self-aggrandising fool who set the inevitable use of open source back ~10 years by shrouding it in a mythology that intimidated the corporate world

Would you expand on that?

Would you expand on that?


I think the point is that Richard Stallman conflated a somewhat mundane but powerful set of ideas, with forming an identity as a maverick outsider heading a semi-religious/political movement. If he'd just pushed the ideas, and perhaps not under a recursive acronym*, then I think the uptake would've been mighty quicker. But instead he chose to form a story, framing the narrative in terms of 'freedom' and a 'movement', and a 'philosophy'. IMHO, this choice of language is all about buffing up an ego.

So it irks me somewhat that the article praises him so much, especially as you can decompose the successes of GPL into some parts, which I don't feel he deserves to receive 'ownership' for
* Engineering side: I've no doubt that the engineering advantages of collaborative development where source code is readable by all, and writable by some would have (and may have - my knowledge of history is lacking here) emerged like any other succesful development strategy. For example, when Java was proprietary, you could download the source code (under a fairly nasty license, I think it was called JSDL or something) and still send in bug reports with suggested fixes. No need for movements and philosophies here!
* Open-source (ie OSI) outside of FSF: Software under non-proprietary licenses without strong reciprocity agreements are also very successful (apache, EPL etc..). They may have come after GPL, but they also had to manouver around it, while he ranted and raved in the background. He didn't seem to see this area of compromise, he instead took hold of strong-reciprocity (the 'viral' element of GPL) and held on to it like a dog with a chew toy. There is of course merit at this extremity, but at the same time, someone less personally involved with the idea would have seen a spectrum of reciprocity possibilities, that businesses could incrementally embrace. I know the legal teams in the software corporations I've worked in shudder at the mention of GPL...

btw, I should probably apologise for the obscenity fronting my last post.. I had to look into the source code of the make utility recently.. if you've done the same you'll know where that moment of rage came from upon seeing the author being put on a pedestal


Not quite the RMS I know

I am slightly concerned about the portrayal of Richard Stallman that seems to make the rounds here. Yes, he has ranted and raved about a great many issues in the past. He is known to have a powerful ego and does not suffer fools gladly. He has shouted at people (incl. me, btw), but he is perfectly able to tone it down and laugh at himself and his own antics.

Now, pray tell, what other so-called paragons of Open Source virtue does that remind you of? RMS is perfectly polite and rather direct in direct conversation. He has his mad moments, but compared to the likes of ESR (or Balmer & Gates and Jobs in the proprietary world) and Theo de Raadt and their well-documented excentricities, he comes over as rather tame.

Talking about the code of make: yes, it is famously difficult to read. What that has to do with RMS' personality, I fail to see.

Incidentally, there are plenty of business that don't shudder at the mention of the GPL, and I would also like to point out that there are plenty of free software activists, for whom the GPL is still a bit too fascist....

There is also a rather large list of licenses that are deemed compatible with the GPL. Thus I fail to see what the argument aims at.

Ok, got it now.

I see where you were coming from. You were having a twitchy knee-jerk reaction against a discussion of Stallman's legacy because of some problems you were having with some code he wrote at some point in the past. And you especially got ticked off at some of the strongly appreciative, even seemingly worshipful, terms used and images evoked.

Of COURSE he has framed his discussion in terms of story and narrative, using specific terms repeatedly over long periods of time to invoke and evoke specific concepts and relationships - hello, he's an obsessed visionary! It's what obsessed visionaries do. Stallman's no different in that respect, and thank goodness for it.

While I definitely wouldn't want to sleep with RMS, or even try to be a friend of his, and sometimes his manner gets on my nerves, the work he has done (and is still doing) is ridiculously important. Thankfully for us all, RMS is enormously unmoved by people's complaints about him - he just keeps on being an anchor no matter what.

At least you recognized that you overreacted with the ad-hominem in your subject - you have strength of character, and that's always very nice to see. There's a paucity of that in the world.

Open Source my Ass. It's

Open Source my Ass.

It's free software and give you freedom.

RMS is the last pure hacker.

And others would say,

more politely,
that Stallman created the possibility of "open source" existing in the first place.
Without the GPL it's highly unlikely that there would have been any commercial uptake of Linux, "open source" or free software in the first place.

Goodness! What's the logics

Goodness! What's the logics in your assertion? thanks


Although Open Source is a very key element to advancing quickly, so has been proprietary technology (C++/ATT - Windows Platform and market Microsoft - Apple iTunes/iPod). The real champ is fast and agile STANDARDS that are open yes but allow even proprietary to connect to open through the system of IETF and RFCs etc. MIME, TCP/IP, HTTP open formats etc all are actually making it possible.

Back to top