Revolution Artem Magun

Revolution is an essential modernist concept denoting a historical event which divides history in two and represents a “stopper” against the potential of reverse motion. Revolution produces a subject who not only claims to be new and to have wiped clean the slate of the past, but is publicly recognized as such by others who have undergone a similar break. However, when there is a discrepancy between concept idea and the actual continuity, revolution presents itself as having passed, failed—or as being permanent.

The word “revolution” is in itself telling; it originally referred to the circular motion of fortuna and denoted a drastic change which is at the same time a return to a pre-existing state of affairs. Nonetheless, during the French Revolution, a new conception of the term emerged: now “revolution” meant a unique, irreversible change. Indeed, “revolution” here refers both to historicity—that is, to the unstoppable destructive stream of history—and to the stoppage of history at a moment when a unique event of subjectivation has taken place. In other words, this stoppage is a way for the subject to grasp and appropriate, at least symbolically, the devastating modern motion of “progress.” This “Revolution” as a unique event acts as a brake, halting the “revolution” understood as a ceaseless cyclical motion (the older understanding) or as a destructive avalanche.

It was Walter Benjamin—the thinker of revolution par excellence who never actually lived through a revolution—who formulated, paradoxically, that revolutions are not the “locomotives” of history but rather its “brakes.” If normally a revolution seems to be an event of self-appropriation, of the mastery of history by a subject, Benjamin—himself revolutionizing the revolution, so to speak—saw its negative, stopping force as the work of the losers of history crowding about in the past to oppose the avalanche of history. One may add, however, that these losers’ work is the true ground of any mastery, and the free emancipated subject would not be free if he had not once been violently subjected.

This contradiction within the concept of revolution also defines the political and ideological struggles that revolve around it. After a brief moment when it seemed that the French Revolution had emancipated everyone, it became evident that different social forces and different subjective modes were dictating different understandings of the revolution. Originally, the dominant understanding was that of those who saw revolution as the victory of the Enlightenment and thus of the autonomous, propertied bourgeois subject. Opposed to them, however, were the poor sans-culottes (“without knee breeches”), who introduced another understanding of revolution as an ecstatic mobilization that forcefully used the language of poverty, suffering, and sentimental compassion. Their revolution was not an amnesiac solution to all social problems, but rather a letting loose of the swarm of sufferings and evils that had been hidden from the light of day by the Ancien Régime. Such a revolution was a revolution of poverty: not an enrichissement, but the richness of poverty itself. “We became poor so as to become rich,” says Hölderlin, the great philosophical interpreter of the French Revolution. In the same context, he speaks of the “communism of spirits,” and this is precisely the time when the word “communism” first emerged to designate this second form of revolution—that of the poor.

Since then, revolution, and the Enlightenment emancipatory thrust as such, has split internally into two poles referred to as “bourgeois” and “proletarian,” though this is only accidental. Both advocate freedom and democracy and both denounce slavery. Nevertheless, in spite of the attempts to integrate the two, in spite of continuing attempts by liberals to say that the slow reform of bourgeois society achieves the goals of the proletariat, the contradiction cannot in fact be reconciled on its own level. The bourgeois revolution emancipates the subject as he or she is, whereas the proletarian revolution aims to subvert the very fabric of society and to invert it, for at least a moment, to turn it upside down. As Karl Marx said in 1843, while the bourgeois revolution destroyed feudal society, it left its elements intact—the goal of the total revolution to come was to dissolve those very elements, to split the social atoms, so to speak.

The same polarity dictates another equivocal feature of the concept of revolution. Being the foundation of a free subject, revolution was immediately seen as the moment of the constitution of a state. As an intense event, it conveniently called for the limitation of its temporal scope. Hence the celebration of revolution, its transformation into an ideologème over the last 200 years. France, the United States, and later the Soviet Union and many Third-World countries, mythologized revolution as a founding event—or more precisely, as a smokescreen to hide their rather unrevolutionary, normalizing policies. The alternative to this deactivation of revolution is “permanent” revolution, a term coined by Proudhon and then made fashionable by Trotsky, albeit in the very special sense of the bourgeois revolution continuously evolving into a proletarian revolution. However, there is still no satisfactory answer to the question of how the revolution is to be carried out in actuality while at the same time avoiding the unlivable conditions of a terrorist, totalitarian society.

What is the destiny of revolution today? On the one hand, since there are plenty of regimes and situations where open oppression and domination takes place, revolutions have become a sort of routine. While some deny that revolutions without a clear utopian vision of the future have the right to be referred to as such, there is, in fact, no reason to deny the that even such seemingly normalizing events as the fall of Soviet and pro-Soviet regimes in Eastern Europe in 1989–1991 had their revolutionary moments—moments of democratic mobilization, of ecstatic joy deriving from the violation of taboos, of fantasies coming true. All of this was genuinely revolutionary. However, because it was decided that a step should be made in a familiar direction to appeal to the subjectivity of the West and because the main force moving the revolutions forward was a new urban middle class which had adopted bourgeois values, these revolutions did not manage to spread an emancipatory impulse throughout society, and in time the hidden conservative agenda of the “revolutionary” classes came to the surface.

On the other hand, the idea of revolution has been dissociated from a practical or utopian belief and linked with the possibility of another world, of the future. Liberal capitalism, a system of latent rather than open domination, may not be overthrown by revolution as long as it is in its citadel. On its periphery, where oppression is quite palpable, resistance is channeled easily, though in an external rather than an internal sense—that is, not as revolution but as nationalist or religious struggles against Western domination. Modernity created the consciousness and structure of a permanent revolution, but today it is either a revolution against nobody, or not a revolution at all, but ethno-religious guerilla fighting. In these circumstances, it seems that only a new international movement with an emancipatory agenda and the ability to educate and transform people can stand to revolutionize revolution once again. Where could such a movement come from? Perhaps from the foci of communist experience, from the international postrevolutionary situations which might produce an intensive, and not an extensive (future) utopia.

In other words, today’s world has been produced, in full, by a revolution that has not yet happened.