“To Revolution, or not to Revolution”

Bhargav Rani


October Revolution, 1917, Soviet-poster – Source: http://gh2u.tumblr.com/post/53438774055/soviet-posters-october-revolution-1917

“Has not the “world revolution” been reduced to an empty formula which can be appropriated pragmatically by the most diverse groups of countries and flogged to death?”

Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (1985)


Revolution is not an easy idea to profess in our time. Once the utopian promise of freedom and a call to arms that animated the struggles and aspirations of peoples for over two centuries of modernity, revolution is now the catchword of capitalism that sells everything from Che Guevara t-shirts to toilet cleaners on Kickstarter. Hollowed of its vigor and vitality, it now hangs suspended between possibility and powerlessness, between hope and despair. But the romance of revolution is not completely lost. As the precarity of the present and the overwhelming sense of political impotence that it reproduces press us for a need to rethink the modalities of resistance available to us, the promise of revolution resurfaces as a comforting andinviting proposition to lead us out of the darkness of our times. But the circumstances of its resurgence hardly make it auspicious, for revolution is an immensely fraught concept. And this was exemplified by the theme chosen for the 2017-2018 seminar series of the Columbia Center of Contemporary Critical Thought (CCCCT) at Columbia University – “Uprising 13/13.”

“Uprising.” Not “Revolution.” The seminar series comprises of 13 seminars held over the year investigating 13 forms of uprisings, and aims to understand the possibilities of collective action and individual political engagement in this supposedly post-revolutionary age we live in. Bernard E. Harcourt and Jesûs R. Velasco, the organizers of the seminar series and both professors at Columbia University, initially proposed “Revolution 13/13,” and planned to revisit the gamut of usual suspects—from the French and American Revolutions, to the Bolshevik Revolution on its centennial. As Harcourt notes in his prefatory blog post to the first seminar,

“We had them all, and yet, we were unable to get past the very word “revolution.” Why? Because of the historians, perhaps. The historians who have spoiled revolution for us in conceptualizing it, in historicizing it, in somehow raising it above all its illegitimate children—resistance, revolt, insurgency, disobedience, hacktivism, standing ground. Those peripheral, those ancillary, those sometimes aborted struggles for social change.”

Harcourt touches here on the crucial historiographic problem with the very term “revolution.” That is, what are the parameters that impel the categorization of certain events in history as “revolution” as opposed to any of its subsidiary cognates like “uprising,” “insurrection,” “rebellion” etc.? And what are the implications of such a categorization to both our understanding of past events and our visions for the future? The barrels of ink spilt in the historiographic glorification of the English, French and Russian Revolutions, by virtue of their classification as “Revolutions” with a capital R, come at the expense of our understanding of various other critical moments in history that for some reason or the other don’t make the cut. It is for this reason that the organizers at CCCCT chose to turn their heads to these “bastards” of history, these “illegitimate children,” in the hope that it would throw new light on the modalities of political engagement and action in this age.

Moreover, what really is the point of a category like “revolution”? “Revolution” signifies an epochal, systemic shift in social and political structures that bleeds into the fabric of everyday life. While it might be useful in understanding past ruptures in history, the future is always unpredictable, and especially so in the liminal and effervescent moments of revolutionary time. If we can’t designate a state of affairs as revolutionary until the ground palpably shifts beneath our feet, then what use is the category in understanding and informing our present struggles? If “revolution” is nothing but a historiographic operation that can only be performed a posteriori, if it is but a term applied to events only in hindsight once the weight of their consequences have been measured, then why even bother with it? And if “revolution,” in the moment of its occurrence, phenomenologically feels no different than an “uprising,” “revolt,” “insurrection,” or “rebellion,” is there perhaps some merit in replacing this rather overbearing category with any of the latter ones in thinking through our present modes of collective action?

But these problems at the level of historiography are only a prologue to deep contradictions in the content of revolution itself. The first seminar of the series, held on 14 September was devoted to unpacking these contradictions, and featured a panel discussion between Étienne Balibar, Simona Forti, and Gayatri Spivak. While each differed in their articulation of the concept and their estimation of its potential in our times, what evinced as a common thread in all their theorizations was the immense inertia that the concept itself had amassed over time. Haunted by the specters of its past iterations in history and congealed in all the blood and wreckage wrought in its name, revolution does not easily yield itself up to our aspirations for the present.

Harcourt, the moderator of the panel, lays out the central questions that underpin their interrogations of the modern concept of revolution in his prefatory blog post. First, are revolutions necessarily doomed to fail? Are revolutions by their very nature so volatile and explosive that they inevitably devolve and disintegrate under the weight of their own contradictions? Even the ones that have been privileged in history as “successful” revolutions, such as the Bolshevik Revolution or the Chinese Cultural Revolution, to what extent have they been but divergent paths to the eventual globalization of capital? Second, do revolutions have within them a structural tendency towards more repressive social formations? That is, as Forti frames it, does revolution “hosts in its genetic code the mark of terror and totalitarianism?” Even as a conceptual category, does the radicality of the critique that revolution embodies, in its unconditional rejection of the status quo, produce a discourse that is so totalizing as to preclude any negotiation or even room for discussion? And third, as Balibar argues, do revolutions only serve to establish a more powerful “preventive counter-revolution,” one that continuously anticipates revolution in order to neutralize it, rendering it virtually impossible to manifest? The various dimensions of revolution are often so fraught that Harcourt wonders “whether our engagement with revolution is not an impediment to social action.”

While not all scholars on the panel shared Harcourt’s utter disenchantment with revolution, these critical contradictions weighed heavy on their appraisal of the modern concept of revolution. This sense of disillusionment if not outright disappointment with revolution was also reflected in the two texts chosen by the panel. The first was Reinhart Koselleck’s “Historical Criteria of the Modern Concept of Revolution,” first published in German in 1979. Koselleck, a German historian-philosopher who until recently was little explored in the US, writing in the aftermath of the Second World War and the numerous bloody civil wars fought across the world in the years after, nourished a deep cynicism towards the modern concept of revolution.

Against its original meaning of “circulation,” derived from the ancient Greek political doctrine of anakyklosis which conceived of history as an indefinite cyclical repetition of limited constitutional forms (monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy, democracy, ochlocracy or mass rule), Koselleck charts the conceptual trajectory of revolution since the French Revolution in order to underline the fundamental semantic ambiguity that offers it up as justification for the most diverse of political configurations and even the bloodiest modes of action. To quote from Forti’s reading of Koselleck, “The revolution becomes a constant state of exception…From Robespierre to Lenin, everything is explained and legitimated in the name of the revolutionary process and its ultimate goal: from war to summary executions, from to [sic] guillotine to concentration camps.”


Haitian slaves massacre owners and burn the North Plain plantations, 1804 – Source: http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/haiti/revolution-1.gif


The second text that the panelists were responding to was The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx’s essay from 1852, reflecting on what he perceived as the “grotesque mediocrity” of the revolution that inaugurated the dictatorship of Louis Bonaparte in 1851. Marx, disillusioned with the outcome of this revolution, famously characterized it as a farcical iteration of the tragedy that the French Revolution was, with Louis Bonaparte emerging in history as a caricature of the tragic hero that Napoleon was. While this text was, in small part, apparently included to, in Balibar’s words, make the program more “sexy,” it nonetheless entered into productive conversations with Koselleck’s essay in the panelists’ reflections on them. The bitter disappointment with revolution that informs Marx’s essay, when taken in conjunction with the deep cynicism that saturates the subtext of Koselleck’s essay, provides an effective tension to interrogate the post-revolutionary pretensions of our own age.

Implicit to the problem of revolution is the equally fraught problem of universalism. Steeped in the principles of eighteenth-century bourgeois Enlightenment thought, universalism as a political doctrine found a performative articulation in the very potentiality latent in revolutionary action, with “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” during the French Revolution. This bourgeois universalism of the French Revolution was transformed, “revolutionized,” by Marx in the nineteenth century into the universalism that underpins the universalizing drive of capital and its insatiable exploitation of the proletariat. At the same time, the model of the bourgeois revolution became both the historical prelude and the point of departure for Marx’s own propositions for a proletarian revolution, whose universalist aspirations are exemplified in the immensely performative rallying cry derived from The Communist Manifesto – “Workers of the world, unite!” For over a century, Marxisms around the world provided this universalism and the utopia of revolution with content.

The birth of postcolonial theory in the wake of the decolonization movements of the 1960s and 1970s shed light on the immanent dark side of universalism—Eurocentricism—and revolution too was caught in the crosshairs of its critique. To return to the example of the French Revolution, the universalism inaugurated by the Declaration of Rights—of liberty, equality, fraternity—sustained itself only through its delimitation to propertied citizens (which excluded women) and its refusal to accord legitimacy to the subsequent Haitian Revolution, the most successful slave rebellion in history. Even at the level of historiography, while the former has been constituted and celebrated as the archetype of revolutions that all other revolutions must emulate, the latter was kept willfully obscured from public and scholarly memory and denied consecration as “Revolution” with a capital R for two centuries. This historical amnesia about the Haitian Revolution was only the first of what became a general precept throughout the colonial era, with the colonial metropoles constituting themselves as the only legitimate sites for revolution, while the colonies were only capable of “resistances,” “guerillas,” “mutinies” and “rebellions.” But, for Balibar, the decolonization movements turned this dynamic over its head by adopting the language of revolution to define national liberation movements, where the colonial powers were cast no longer in the role of subjects of revolutionary change but rather as objects, as the establishment that needs dismantling. Balibar understands this inversion in the semantics of revolution as, paradoxically, “a full “Europeanization” of the world” and “a complete universalization of its political categories.”

While Balibar strives to incorporate the dynamics of the national liberation movements of the twentieth century into his conceptualization of revolution, Spivak on the other hand is emphatic in her refusal to characterize national liberations as revolutions. Insofar as revolutions signify systemic change, for her, national liberations are not revolutions because they are generally brought about by the progressive bourgeoisie based on an “orientalist model of the nation being liberated” and do not reflect the interests and aspirations of the national populations. This is important. While Balibar’s definition of the concept of revolution leads him to the bleak conclusion that the preventive counter-revolutionary forces constantly anticipate and prevent the possibility of revolution, Spivak’s insistence on the difference between revolution and national liberation leaves room for an idea of revolution that could still offer hope for radical politics. For Spivak, the central problematic of revolution is whether it can take root in and be impelled by the “revolutionary consciousness” of the subaltern subject, particularly the gendered subaltern.

Postcolonial theory and post-structural thought, which these decolonization movements nourished, have been vital to a critical unpacking of the Eurocentric presuppositions that inform theory and knowledge. They have, however, made for bad politics. Their insistence on difference and their rejection of the structural discourses of Marxism as totalizing and Eurocentric have translated in the public sphere into a politics of identity and ethnicity. Identity politics has been crucial for highlighting and addressing the atrocities suffered by racial and ethnic minorities around the world, but its insistence on the singularity of their struggles and their mutual incommunicability fails to implicate the structures of global capitalist relations of production that reproduce these structural inequalities in the relations of life in the first place. Such a definition of politics saps revolution of its potency, reducing political action to a mostly reformist pursuit of justice for the benefit of one’s own identity group. Postcolonial theory and identity politics were gravely mistaken in their assumption that the universalizing and “homogenizing” drive of capitalism could be resisted through a galvanization of the local and an insistence on difference, as the innumerable failures of movements against globalization over the last thirty years testify. Neoliberal capital is not only unperturbed by cultural and ethnic differences as long as it can establish market dependence, but it in fact thrives on a manipulation and exploitation of these differences among the working classes. Perhaps, in this context, it behooves us to think why the Black Lives Matter movement, despite its strong grassroots activism, has not only failed to assume a revolutionary character but has further emboldened and empowered the racist and white supremacists in this country. Must we concede Balibar’s bleak vision for the future?

Standing in the debris of social movements that identity politics produced, as we find ourselves impelled to radically rethink the modes of revolt and resistance available to us, revolution yet again resurfaces on the horizon of our collective desire. Faced with the behemoth of globalized capital—the long-prophesized universalization of capitalism realized—and the unprecedented scale of social, economic and ecological disaster that it marches towards, the profound totality of change implicit in the universalism of revolution seems like the only way out. But this idea of revolution can no longer be fueled by the kind of Eurocentric universalism that had animated the struggles of modernity. Nor can the idea be reduced to a multiplicity of localized struggles across the world that remain fundamentally incommunicable and unconnected. To heed Spivak’s proposition, the universal “we” that can form the agents of this revolution must be posited by “claiming the subject of Marxism through the affirmative sabotage of ‘universalism,’” but at the same time, they cannot simply be “fantasmatic counter-universals with the global South as center.” The idea of revolution must aspire for a universality if it is to stand any chance against the universality of capital, and the content of this universality must be forged anew from the dialectical relation between the utopian force of Marxism’s universalism and its dynamic deconstruction by postcolonial theory.


A protest on Saturday by the students of Banaras Hindu University against the molestation of a student inside the campus, in Varanasi.(PTI) – Source: http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/mr-vice-chancellor-mind-your-language-it-was-molestation-at-bhu-not-eve-teasing/story-XETe4qCGDQnHiURoRfvJFM.html


Situated in the Graduate Center, even as we strive to build a movement that can galvanize its most marginalized and exploited, it becomes imperative to attend to these debates and reflect on what value the idea of revolution can hold for us in a neoliberal university. As Balibar notes, identifying revolutionary situations is not the difficult part, insofar as these situations are often moments of acute crisis. Rather, what is difficult is “identifying in the present collective agents who can become active in such situations and “resolve” the contradiction.” The crises of the neoliberal university are most acutely felt in a public university like CUNY, where contractual, adjunct labor shoulders most of the teaching load at a third of the pay that full-time faculty receives and with little job security, where tuition fees for students have been steadily rising over the past four decades, and where an expanding class of bureaucratic managers and administrators continually siphon off funds that could benefit the students and faculty—the main stakeholders of the university—to pay for their six-figure salaries. Yet, the very real, material conditions of scholarship and pedagogy under neoliberalism and the immense labor of everyday life that it demands, when conjoined with its ideologies that spell out in bold letters that “There is No Alternative,” work to prevent the “becoming subject of groups or “forces” that are virtually revolutionary” (Balibar).

Perhaps the greatest virtue still of the idea of revolution in thinking about our present struggles and modes of collective action is precisely its most difficult endeavor – the becoming subject of virtually revolutionary groups. This is not so much a question of who will lead the revolution as it is a question of who will be the revolution. While the neoliberal university continually produces legions of disgruntled, overworked, underpaid graduate workers and students who can comfortably occupy this space of virtuality, their becoming subject demands the counter-production of a “revolutionary consciousness” at the level of the everyday. We are, unfortunately, still a long way from that.

Finally, if the idea of revolution is to hold any meaning and force, then our struggles in the here and now must aspire for a universality. Even as the US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to rescind Title IX provisions on campus sexual assault, threatening the hard-won victories of decades of feminist organizing in the country, in Delhi, the Jawaharlal Nehru University administration has, in a patriarchal regression, dissolved its democratically elected gender sensitization committee. In Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi, students protesting the victim-shaming of a woman who was sexually harassed on campus and decrying the general lack of women’s safety were brutally beaten and teargassed by the police. For these struggles and resistances to achieve a revolutionary character, they must learn to communicate beyond the immediacy of their own contexts. This is not to say that the material realities in the diverse contexts or the struggles of these peoples are the same. What it means is that insofar as the patriarchal relations of life in these various contexts are systemically reproduced by capitalist relations of production that have now reached a global magnitude, these struggles, even if different and enacted locally, must be bound by a revolutionary consciousness that is universal, a consciousness that nurtures a devastating critique of not just one’s own exploitation in the here and now but of the entire system of relations that enslaves the majority of people in the world today. Without this consciousness, revolution, in any affirmative sense of the term, will remain a far cry.

This editorial is not meant to be a theory of revolution. It is meant as a broad preface to a conversation that the Advocate hopes to sustain in its pages over this semester. The current issue offers articles on the October Revolution on its centennial and on the idea of revolution in relation to indigenous rights, Standing Rock and Columbus Day. We invite our readers to contribute to this conversation in the coming issues, and we welcome articles or art/performance/film reviews from a range of perspectives on revolution. We particularly invite the various activist organizations in the Graduate Center that are fighting for the democratic rights of its students and workers to write on the meaning and relevance of the idea of revolution to our present condition, as a way to reflect on their own political visions and practices.

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