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What is revolution?

Published on 16 September 2013
Updated on 06 March 2023

The Lucerne Music Festival is running this year’s program on the theme of “Revolution” – even this hailed concept has turned “monkey” and into a money-making tool. The Neue Zürcher Zeitung (the Swiss establishment paper) has asked Konrad Paul LIESMANN, professor of philosophy at Vienna University, to broad cast choice words as PC introduction.[1] The philosopher has declared the world to be “safe” from revolution: its attraction has faded. I may chortle: revolution (like religion) is now a theme for shows and musicals.

The author analyzes the concept. To do so, he rounds up the usual suspects for closer inspection. Hegel comes first. In his Phenomenology of spirit revolution is the “unseparated substance of absolute freedom” – the first stage of a dialectical process. Absolute freedom, says Hegel, contains immanent terror. I’ll leave it up to the philosophically inclined to sort out whether “terror” is to be understood historically (as in the French revolution) or philosophically as part of the dialectical process. The outcome is synthesis – a political compromise – which may be seen as the betrayal of the ideal of freedom.

This pessimistic view is not surprising, for “freedom” is indeterminate. Freedom is choice. Exercise choice and freedom is lost. Nor is discretion possible: choice must be subject to some form of rationality. If not, choice is arbitrary. The old pagans argued – against Christians – that their God was “arbitrary.” If He is almighty, hence subject to no rule, what rules apply to him? Or put it the other way round: how is one almighty, if He is subject to rationality? They were right: He who is above the rule, has no objective criterion for selection. Paraphrasing Einstein: “God (and ultimate freedom) can only play dice with the world.” On the matter of revolution, it would seem, Hegel is as obscure as his reputation. Hegel does point to an issue, however, never properly discussed by all aficionados of “revolutions”: when is “revolution” over? I’ll take this on in a further blog.

Next comes Hannah Arendt, with: On revolution. Prof. LIESMANN 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 a 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 rupture, as both end and a new beginning, as radical change of perspective.”

We are shifting here from content – the “reason” for the revolution – to “process.” Revolution is content-free and what counts is how it happens. In the ned, however, Arendt falls back on “content” after this programmatic statement. For Arendt, the “novelty” criterion is exacting: in her view were only two revolutions. The American Revolution brought about “freedom”. The French Revolution focused on “justice.” All other revolutions are epigones of these two, or are “incomplete” – seizure of power by an extractive elite under the banner of high principle. Are revolutions no longer possible? Who know? One may note the secular and Western character of Arendt’s two revolutions. This would leave the road open for a “transcendental” revolution – of religious origin.

Neither of Arendt’s “revolutions” in fact succeeded. By focusing on the meta-value of freedom (without the choice), the American Revolution bypassed the issue of content: the Civil War belatedly resolved this matter. The Tea Party’s call for freedom is nostalgia for the “political womb” – the happy period before choices had to be exercised. As for the French Revolution, we are still debating the meaning of political and economic justice.

Arendt’s contribution to the “theory of revolution”, in my view, is the implicit shift from content to process. “Sudden and new” describes a discontinuity in a complex, emergent system – the heady moment when individual intentionalities become collective ones and bring change about. Content is eclipsed. It would seem, at this point that we are prisoners of what one may call the “uncertainty principle” of social sciences. One can focus on processes or ideas, but not both at the same time. If we study the event, we must forget the content. If we study the content, we must forget the event. Am I wrong? Amusingly, most revolutionaries, for all their longing and preparing ideologically for the revolution, usually missed the event and belatedly scrambled to catch up with history in the making.

Arendt’s definition, furthermore, is indiscriminate. 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.”[2] Indeed, Annah Harendt 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 looked akin to the 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 meaningful the grain becomes. The events of the “Arab spring” had lots of precursors.[3] 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 even “sudden and new”.

One remembers the centennial principle discussion over “improvement vs. emancipation” that goes back to Karl Marx. Social democrats and communists split over it (Hitler’s ascent to power was due (in part) to the inability of the Left to resolve the conundrum). Reforms lead to improvement, but only a revolution leads to emancipation. So what to do? The better is the enemy of the good: reforms may solidify the current system and postpone the goal of emancipation. Should we make people suffer today, so their children shall be in paradise on earth? It has been a “either – or” discussion taking on transcendental character. So much ink spilled! If Hannah Arendt is right, only studying the immediate process will help. In turn, this has policy consequences. Process is inherently contingent, and the issue can only be resolved pragmatically (the “it all depends”). We better scrap the pointless principle discussion.

I have turned the concept of “revolution” over and over. Its meaning escapes me. It is a brilliant political slogan, but not an analytical tool. Why its popularity? My conjecture is that it harks back to the Christian concept of time.[4] Crucifixion was the “revolution” – it was “sudden and new”. Crucifixion split time into “before and after” and gave direction (and fulfillment) to time: the “second coming of Christ.” This was a monumental novelty in a world where time flowed, but had no “direction.” Crucifixion heralded “the end of time” – the fulfillment of Redemption. Hence the fierce discussions among early Christians between those who wanted to bring the “end of time” about through martyrdom (Donatists) and those who accepted to live within historical time making compromises with their persecutors, leaving it to Christ to decide when Apocalypse should begin. This religious discussion has now taken on a “secular” vest under the guise of “revolution” as Paradise on earth or the coming “end of time”. The argument has not changed – witness the emotional intensity of the discussion.[5]

For a different take, take China’s “Mandate of Heaven.” Over 3’000 years, China as a unified political entity has endured. The ruler had a “mandate from heaven”, which it celebrated by destroying the old capital and building a new one. Then the dynasty “lost” the mandate through incompetence. Defeat against revolt validated the loss. Revolts followed each other while the institution of centralized government endured. By avoiding false dichotomies, one can have the cake and eat it too. We may wish to temper the discussion with a sense of the contingent.

[1] Revolution – eine Idee verblasst.

[2] Quoted in: Simon LEYS (2013): The hall of uselessness. Collected essays. New York Review of Books, New York, pg. 309

[3] On Libya, see e.g. Hugh ROBERTS (2011): Who said that Gaddafi had to go? LRB, XXXIII, 22: On Egypt, see: Hugh ROBERTS (2013): The revolution that wasn’t. LRB XXXV, 17. These articles show how “grainy” the process is. And I’m sure, closer inspection would yield further significant, even determinant detail. See e.g. Charles TRIPP (2013): Unfinished business LRB XXXV, 16, for a more in-depth discussion of the Muslim Brotherhood.

[4] There is a fundamental difference here between the Christians’ longing for the “end of time”, and Islam, which sees fulfillment of Allah’s mandate in daily prayers and acceptance of God’s Law. This kind of time is akin to Mosaic time, where fulfillment of God’s will was in the Law.

[5] There may be here an overlay with Greek essentialism, which was not 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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