The term “revolution” has been so relentlessly cheapened in common usage that it can mean almost anything. We have revolutions practically every week: banking revolutions, cybernetic revolutions, medical revolutions and an Internet revolution every time someone invents a clever new piece of software.
The commonplace definition of revolution has always implied something in the nature of a paradigm shift, a clear break, a fundamental rupture in the nature of social reality, after which everything works differently and prior categorizations no longer apply. It is this understanding of the concept that makes it possible for people to claim that the modern world is essentially derived from two revolutions: the French and the Industrial. The fact that the two have almost nothing in common, other than seeming to mark a break with what came before, rarely deters people from the theory. Political philosopher Ellen Meiksins Woods notes that we have fallen into the odd habit of discussing “modernity” as if it involved a combination of English laissez-faire economics and French republican-style government. We do this despite the fact that the two have really nothing to do with either revolution. The Industrial Revolution happened under an antiquated, largely medieval constitution and 19th century France was anything but laissez-faire.
The fact that the Russian Revolution appeals to the “developing world” is because it’s the one example in which both sorts of revolution did actually seem to coincide: a seizure of national power that then led to rapid industrialization. As a result, almost every 20th century government in the South that was determined to play economic catch-up with the industrial powers felt compelled to claim that it was a “revolutionary regime.”
If there is one logical error that underlies this system of thought, it rests on imagining that social or even technological change can take the same form as what Thomas Kuhn has called “the structure of scientific revolutions.” Kuhn is referring to events like the shift from a Newtonian to an Einsteinian universe, which was an instance when an intellectual breakthrough suddenly changed reality. But applying this structure to anything other than true scientific revolutions is to imply that the world really is equivalent to our knowledge of it and the moment we change the principles upon which our knowledge is based, reality changes too. This is the sort of erroneous logic that developmental psychologists say we’re supposed to overcome in early childhood. It seems few of us ever really do.
In fact, the world is not obligated to conform to our expectations and insofar as “reality” refers to anything, it refers to precisely that which can never be entirely encompassed by our imaginative constructions. Totalities, in particular, are always creatures of the imagination. Nations, societies, ideologies, closed systems – none of these really exist. Our belief in such things may be an undeniable social force, but reality is infinitely messier than that. For one thing, the habit of thought that defines the world as a totalizing system (in which every element takes on significance only in relation to the other elements) tends almost invariably to lead to a view of revolutions as cataclysmic ruptures. How, after all, could one totalizing system be replaced by an entirely new one other than by some cataclysmic event? Thus, we interpret human history as a series of revolutions: the Neolithic Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the Information Revolution, et cetera, and the political dream becomes to somehow take control of the process. We strive to get to the point at which we can cause a rupture of revolutionary magnitude – a momentous breakthrough that will occur as the direct result of collective will. “The Revolution,” properly speaking.
It’s not surprising that when radical thinkers find themselves incapable of causing a rupture in their own political reality, they quickly try to identify examples of revolutions happening elsewhere. This phenomenon has grown to such a point that French philosopher Paul Virilio theorizes that rupture is our permanent state of being.
I’m not making an appeal for the flat rejection of imaginary totalities (assuming that such a rejection is even possible, which it probably isn’t); imaginary totalities are likely a necessary tool of human thought. Rather I ask that we bear in mind that these totalities are just that: tools of thought. For instance, there’s great value in being able to ask ourselves, “After the revolution, how will we organize mass transportation?” or, “Who will fund scientific research?” or even, “Do you think there will be fashion magazines once the revolution comes?” Our present understanding of the concept is a useful mental hinge, but we must also recognize that unless we are willing to massacre hundreds of thousands of people, the “revolution” will almost certainly not be the clean break with the past that our current definition implies.
So what will it be?
Revolution on a worldwide scale will unfold at a very slow pace. It is beginning to happen. What we need to do in order to recognize this fact is to stop thinking of revolution as a singular thing, as one great cataclysmic break. Instead, we should be asking ourselves what revolutionary action is. Revolutionary action is any collective action that rejects, and therefore confronts, some form of power or domination and, in doing so, reconstitutes social relations. Revolutionary action does not necessarily have to be so grandiose that it aims only to topple governments. Something so small as attempting to create autonomous communities in the face of opposing power would, for instance, be revolutionary acts. If we accept this definition, then we accept the fact that quiet revolutions have been occurring all over the world. Rural communities in Madagascar reacted to the depredations of French colonialism by gradually adopting the ethos that it is wrong for adults to give one another orders. The Malagasy then practiced sustained passive resistance to the point where the postcolonial state largely abandoned trying to govern them altogether. This slow-won, albeit imperfect, victory could easily be regarded as successful mass revolutionary action.
An example like the Malagasy exposes what lies beneath the grandiosity of totalities. All of them ultimately reflect the logic of the state, the ghostly presence of what Tronti called the “state form.” From the very beginning, states have been peculiar syntheses of utopian projects and forms of institutionalized raiding or extortion. As a result, there has always been a slightly embarrassing affinity between the forms of radical simplification of human experience that are promulgated by state bureaucracies and those forms that are imagined under “social theory.” (I don’t claim that there’s anything wrong with such imaginary forms – all theory must simplify reality. It’s only when these forms of simplification are backed by force that they become forms of radical stupidity.) It is important that we begin seriously thinking about how to reconsider the relation of social theory and revolutionary projects now that so many 21st-century revolutionaries are increasingly rejecting the idea of seizing state power. Instead they are drawing on the ethical and organizational legacy of the anarchist tradition (even if only a minority are presently willing to call themselves anarchists). If intellectuals do not constitute a vanguard then what, exactly, is their role?
Eventually it may become possible to imagine an entirely new grammar of revolutionary forms. Perhaps we could begin by defining a continuum. At one extreme we place all forms of revolutionary action that confront the state on its own terms (violence) so as to challenge the forms of inequality that the state guarantees. Call this the insurrectionary option.
At the other end we place all forms of revolutionary exodus – “engaged withdrawal” – and the creation of new communities. Call this the refusal of confrontation. Somewhere in the middle lies the logic of direct action – the work of creating a new society in the shell of the old. Or, more boldly, there lies the insistence, even in the face of state power, to act as though one is already free. Whatever the terms we finally decide on, whether they are these or something else, none can have exclusive purchase on truth or efficacy. Radical social change will only emerge through the endless interplay of confrontations, withdrawals, foundations and subversions.
David Graeber is the author of Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion and Desire and Direct Action: An Ethnography.