What is Revolution?

On this week’s show Aaron Bastani and James Butler discuss the concept of revolution. Is the binary of reform and revolution a useful one in informing ‘what is to be done’?


‘Revolution’ starts as a natural-historical concept: it described the circulation of celestial bodies, and suggested a return to an original point. This might be in accordance with the ancient doctrine, which suggested there were a limited number of possible political constitutions, which might succeed each other in turn, but neither could they coincide, nor could there be any novel form of government. This is alien to the sense in which we use the term today, and we attempt to trace some of the shifts in the concept after the French Revolution of 1789. Part of this shift comes from, as Hannah Arendt put it in On Revolution, our lack of a word to ‘characterize a transformation in which the subjects themselves became the ruler’, but we also note some of the ways in which the concept expanded in the hands of communist revolutionaries of the 19th and 20th centuries: (a) its role as a transcendent, ordering principle of history, (b) the way in which it is bound up with the sense that history is proceeding ever faster, and promises both its acceleration and a break with all previously-existing forms of historical life, (c) becomes discernible as a particular kind of historical event, for which strategies and techniques can be prepared and analysed, and which has particular laws that can be understood. In this sense, communists of the 20th century attempt to derive a science of revolution. (Much of the form of this historical presentation – a kind of ‘conceptual history’ – is indebted to Reinhart Koselleck. We recommend Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time for those interested in the background to this kind of history.)

The argument between reform and revolution extended across the 20th century, and finds its classic statement in Rosa Luxemburg’s pamphlet Reform or RevolutionWhile Luxemburg wrote this pamphlet in part as a polemic in a contemporary debate, it contains a number of prescient remarks about the role of credit in capitalist crisis. For a contemporary look at the possibility of reform and the politics of reformism nowadays, this article by Nate Hawthorne and subsequent discussion is an excellent starting point. We note two currents of thinking that are often opposed to each other by people talking about contemporary revolutionary practice: some mutation on Lenin, and the kind of thinking exemplified in John Holloway. However, it is worth noting the looser sense of the word ‘party’ often used by early communists – referring less to the Leninist vanguard organ than to the broad swathe of people on the ‘side’ of communism – as well as recent discussions over both the decline of the mass party, and the limits of ‘networked’ or horizontal forms of organisation. In any case, the current political moment requires new analysis, and we suggest (in line with some of the intellectual work here) that several aspects of the current crisis require careful attention: the development of a ‘surplus population’ (the theme for next week’s show), the re-emergence of the ‘immiseration thesis‘ in attempts to frame current changes within capitalism, the rapid pace of technological change and subsequent alterations to the way we work, and the completion of the globalisation project. The restructuring of low-wage sectors and wage guarantees, and the rise of unpaid work (cf. here) is a key element in the current attack on the proletariat (and is ever-growing) – and will be a crucial site of conflict in the coming years.

If the twentieth century saw the development of a ‘science of revolution’, then we suggest it also saw its division into two phases: first the seizure of power, second the rather more difficult task of creating society and the people that composed it anew. It is worth going back to the questions Marx asked about kinds of emancipation as well as the distinction between political and social revolution – and how those grand projects intersect with the gritty minutiae of everyday struggle. Two differing perspectives on current struggles: the synthetic notes of two thinkers associated with ‘communization’ theory, and, perhaps somewhat more practically, Solidarity Federation’s vision of a contemporary anarcho-syndicalism. On the question of ‘human emancipation’ in social revolution, it might be worth thinking about the preoccupation with ‘species-being‘ (.pdf) intermittent among marxist thinkers.

Finally, some lines from the first chapter of The German Ideology (final section ‘The Necessity of the Communist Revolution’):

“In all revolutions up till now the mode of activity always remained unscathed and it was only a question of a different distribution of this activity, a new distribution of labour to other persons, whilst the communist revolution is directed against the preceding mode of activity, does away with labour, and abolishes the rule of all classes with the classes themselves, because it is carried through by the class which no longer counts as a class in society, is not recognised as a class, and is in itself the expression of the dissolution of all classes, nationalities, etc. within present society …  [T]his revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.”

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