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What is revolution?

Published on 16 September 2013
Updated on 29 March 2024

The Lucerne Music Festival is running this year’s programme on the theme of ‘Revolution’; even this hailed concept has turned into a money-making tool. The Swiss establishment paper Neue Zürcher Zeitung has asked Konrad Paul Liessmann, professor of Philosophy at the University of Vienna, to provide a carefully chosen, politically correct introduction (see ‘Revolution – eine Idee verblasst‘ by Konrad Paul Liessmann). 

In the article, Liessmann declares the world to be ‘safe from revolution’, asserting that its appeal has waned. With a touch of irony, he notes that revolution, much like religion, has become a theme for shows and musicals.

The images shows the painting Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix, 1830
Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix, 1830.

Hegel and revolution

Liessmann proceeds to analyse ‘revolution’, examining key figures closely, starting with Hegel. In his Phenomenology of Spirit, revolution—described as the ‘unseparated substance of absolute freedom’—marks the initial stage of a dialectical process. Hegel posits that absolute freedom encompasses immanent terror. I will leave it to those with a philosophical bent to determine whether ‘terror’ should be understood historically (as exemplified by the French Revolution) or philosophically (as an integral part of the dialectical process). The culmination of this process is synthesis – a political compromise that could be perceived as a betrayal of the ideal of freedom.

This pessimistic view is hardly surprising, given that freedom is indeterminate. Freedom represents a choice. Yet, by exercising this choice, freedom is lost. Discretion too is constrained: choice must adhere to some form of rationality. Without this, choices become arbitrary. The ancient pagans contended—in opposition to Christians—that their God was arbitrary. If He is almighty, and thus not bound by any rule, what rules then apply to Him? Conversely, how can one be almighty if constrained by rationality?

They had a point: One who is above any rule lacks an objective criterion for selection. Paraphrasing Einstein: God (and ultimate freedom) can only play dice with the world. Regarding revolution, Hegel’s insights appear as enigmatic as his reputation suggests. Nonetheless, Hegel highlights a seldom addressed aspect among revolution enthusiasts: when does a revolution truly end? This topic I plan to explore in a subsequent blog.

Hannah Arendt’s theory of revolution

Next comes Hannah Arendt with On Revolution. Prof. Liessmann argues that in her worldview, ‘freedom and the new’ are essential. Revolution is a political discontinuity: it does not simply lead to a change in the ruling elite, but to a total recast of the political system: ‘Revolution is not just an accelerated process of institutional reform; a revolution is not the result of ongoing changes in the social sphere, the sciences, or technology – a revolution manifests itself as a rupture, as both an end and a new beginning, as a radical change of perspective.’

This image shows the painting The Death of Julius Caesar by Vincenzo Camuccin, 1806.
The Death of Julius Caesar by Vincenzo Camuccin, 1806.

We are shifting here from the content (‘reason’ for the revolution) to the ‘process’. Revolution becomes content-free, focusing on how it unfolds. Yet, after this programmatic statement, Arendt revisits ‘content’. For her, the criterion of ‘novelty’ is stringent: she recognises only two true revolutions. The American Revolution, she argues, brought about ‘freedom’, while the French Revolution was centered on ‘justice’. All other revolutions, in her view, are either derivatives of these two or are ‘incomplete’ – marked by the seizure of power by an extractive elite under the guise of high principles.

Are revolutions, then, no longer feasible? It’s an open question. Notably, the secular and Western focus of Arendt’s exemplars of revolution leaves room for the possibility of a ‘transcendental’ revolution – one rooted in religious origins.

Neither of Arendt’s ‘revolutions’, in fact, succeeded. The American Revolution, by focusing on the meta-value of freedom (without the choice), bypassed the core issue of content; a dilemma the Civil War would belatedly address. The Tea Party’s call for freedom echoes nostalgia for the ‘political womb’, symbolising the idyllic period before the necessity of making difficult choices emerged. As for the French Revolution, the debate over the meanings of political and economic justice persists.

Arendt’s key contribution to the theory of revolution, in my view, is the implicit shift from content to process. ‘Sudden and new’ encapsulates a discontinuity within a complex, emergent system – the pivotal moment when individual intentions merge into collective action to effect change. Here, content is overshadowed. This transition suggests we are bound by what could be termed the ‘uncertainty principle’ of social sciences, where focus is mutually exclusive: concentrate on processes or ideas, but not both simultaneously. If we delve into the event, we must sideline the content. Conversely, focusing on content requires overlooking the event. Isn’t it ironic? Most revolutionaries, despite their ideological zeal and preparation for revolution, often miss the actual occurrence, only to hastily attempt to align with history as it unfolds.

The image shows the painting Declaration of Independence by  John Trumbull, 1826.
Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull, 1826.

Arendt’s definition, furthermore, is indiscriminate. Polish essayist Kazimierz Brandys argued: ‘Contemporary history teaches us that all you need is one mentally sick individual, two ideologues, and three hundred murderous thugs in order to take power and gag millions of people’ (see The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays by Simon Leys). Indeed, Hannah Arendt would recoil from classifying the sudden destruction of Cambodian society in the name of communist utopia as ‘revolution’.

There is more. ‘Sudden and new’ is also scale-dependent in both time and place. For the citizens of Paris, the taking of the Bastille was ‘sudden and new’. For the historian studying social conditions prevailing at the time, the French Revolution would have appeared akin to a slowly mounting tide. For the attentive chronicler, the ‘sudden’ decomposes into a long and continuous historical process. The more one studies the event, the finer and more meaningful the grain becomes.

The events of the Arab Spring had lots of precursors. Of course, we were unable to connect the dots before the events, but once the probabilistic nature of historical events collapses into a contingent and path-dependent outcome, the logic of events becomes clear. In practice, nothing is truly ‘sudden and new’ (on Libya, see Hugh Roberts’ ‘Who Said that Gaddafi Had to Go?’, and on Egypt, see his article ‘The Revolution That Wasn’t‘; both articles show how ‘grainy’ the process is, and a closer inspection would surely yield further significant, even determinant, details. For a more in-depth discussion of the Muslim Brotherhood, see Charles Tripp’s ‘Unfinished Business‘).

Evolution as a path to emancipation

One recalls the centuries-old principal discussion over ‘improvement vs. emancipation’ that traces back to Karl Marx. The split between social democrats and communists over this issue (partially contributing to Hitler’s ascent to power due to the Left’s failure to resolve the conundrum) highlights the complexity of political ideologies.

Reforms are aimed at improvement, but only a revolution is seen as a path to emancipation. This raises the question: what should be done? The proverb ‘the better is the enemy of the good’ suggests that reforms might only strengthen the current system and delay the achievement of emancipation. Should we then subject people to suffering today in hopes that their descendants will live in a utopia? This debate, often framed as a binary choice, has evolved into a transcendental argument.

According to Hannah Arendt, focusing solely on the immediate process can offer insights, which, in turn, have significant policy implications. The process, inherently contingent, demands a pragmatic approach (‘it all depends’), suggesting that it may be more productive to move beyond purely principled discussions.

The crucifixion as a revolution

I have repeatedly contemplated the concept of ‘revolution’, yet its true meaning eludes me. While it serves as a compelling political slogan, it falls short as an analytical tool. Why, then, is it so popular? My conjecture is that its appeal traces back to the Christian concept of time.1 The crucifixion represented a ‘revolution’; it was sudden and introduced a new epoch. This event divided time into ‘before and after’, imparting both direction and a sense of fulfilment through the anticipation of the ‘Second Coming of Christ’. This was a monumental shift in a world where time previously flowed without inherent ‘direction’. The crucifixion signaled ‘the end of time’ – the culmination of Redemption. Thus emerged fierce debates among early Christians between those who sought to hasten the ‘end of time’ through martyrdom (the Donatists) and those who chose to navigate historical time, compromising with their persecutors, leaving the timing of the Apocalypse to Christ. This theological discourse has since adopted a ‘secular’ guise, recast as ‘revolution’ – envisioned as paradise on Earth or the impending ‘end of time’. The core of the argument remains unchanged, as evidenced by the ongoing emotional intensity of such discussions.2

For a different perspective, consider China’s ‘Mandate of Heaven’. For over 3,000 years, China has endured as a unified political entity. Rulers held a ‘mandate from heaven’, celebrated by the symbolic act of destroying the old capital and constructing a new one. However, a dynasty could ‘lose’ this mandate through incompetence, with defeat in revolt serving as validation of such loss. Despite successive revolts, the institution of centralized government remained intact. By eschewing false dichotomies, it is possible to recognize the complexity of maintaining power. It may be beneficial to approach this discussion with an appreciation of contingency.

This post was first published on DeepDip.

1. There is a fundamental difference here between the Christians’ longing for the ‘end of time’ and that of Islam, which sees the fulfilment of Allah’s mandate in daily prayers and acceptance of God’s Law. This kind of time is akin to Mosaic time, where the fulfilment of God’s will was in the Law.

2. There may be an overlay here with Greek essentialism, which was not a parcel of Christ’s original message. This would lead the discussion far afield. We are not even aware of how these ideas may permeate our arguments (in part through language).

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