Revolution Martin Škabraha

“The French Revolution gave a name to what it eliminated. It called it the ancien régime—‘old regime.’ Even more precisely than what it abolished, however, it identified what it wished to be—a decisive break with the past, which it relegated to a time of dark barbarity,” writes historian Francois Furet,1 thus encapsulating the reason why it is possible to refer to the peak of modern times—modernity—as an epoch of revolutions.

Revolution is not ordinary rebellion, coup, or social unrest such as we know innumerable examples of in history. The concept of revolution refers to a total overthrow, associated exclusively with modernism—i.e., the ideology of modernization, modern transformations of society on the basis of science and technology, the reduction of the world to the experimental microcosm of the laboratory. The age of revolutions is an age of intoxication with the possibilities offered by such a transformation, but also one of alarm at the “inventions of destruction” which leads to acts of “reaction,” “counterrevolution” and “restoration”—which in the end once again simply become catalysts of modernization.

Furet rightly links the rhetoric of newness to traditional European self-determination with respect to barbarity, a fundamental cultural otherness, first formulated by the Greek historian Herodotus in his description of the Greco-Persian wars. Modernism, nurtured also by the Christian history of salvation, does not apply this definition outwardly, but rather inwardly into society itself, giving it a temporal nature and making a deep “apocalyptic” incision through society through revolution; it prescribes an absolute difference between the outdated, which it is necessary to cast aside and burn in the fire of progress, and the present, which opens out toward the only fully human future. Socialism or barbarism, as formulated by Rosa Luxemburg.

Besides a traditional cultural definition, however, the idea of revolution also rests on one fundamentally modern—revolutionary—invention and that is the subject. Although the significance of the influence of religious reformation—with its emphasis on the inner, self-examining dimension of faith—on the constitution of modern subjectivity cannot be underestimated, the fundamental role was played by the development of science. At the beginning of all modern revolutions stands the Copernican Revolution: De revolutionibus orbis coelestium (“On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres”) was the title that the celebrated astronomer gave to his book in 1543, the publishing of which initiated the West’s parting with the geocentric Ptolemaic cosmos in which everything had its fixed natural place, humanity not excluded. It did not only change the picture of the world itself, however. The Copernican Revolution also brought a fundamental challenge to human understanding, for the universe, which for centuries had been guaranteed by the authority of the highest sovereign—that is to say its creator—turned out to be an erroneous construction at its very basis.

Philosophical meaning was imparted to this experience at the end of the 18th century by Immanuel Kant when he introduced the concept “Copernican Revolution.” With it he not only appositely described the revolutionary nature of his own transcendental rationalism, but also its material foundation, analogical to the approach of the Polish astronomer. Copernicus derived his correction of the Ptolemaic theory from the fact that anomalies in the orbits of the heavenly bodies are not the properties of the movements themselves, but reflect the position of the observer and it is necessary to reevaluate that position.2  Kantian philosophy radicalizes this motif and advocates the thesis that our entire picture of the world is a construction created by the knowledge-acquiring subject, equipped with senses—providing uncertain data about external reality—and reason, which imprints the only real certainties on knowledge.

The key concepts of Marxism, modernity’s most revolutionary school of thought, are derived from an equivalent of Kantian critique of the existing understanding of reason and the need to undertake a “Copernican Revolution”: the human being must recognize itself as the creator of reality, as its subject, not its object. Revolution is in fact the espousal of owning a copyright to history and opening up space for absolute freedom to create it; political activity is something like art here, the nature of being revolutionary is inherently aesthetic—it has its own bloody beauty. This is wonderfully captured by Maurice Blanchot, whose book La Part du feu (“The Work of Fire”) is quoted from by Jacques Derrida: “The writer recognizes himself in the Revolution. Revolution attracts him because it is a time when literature becomes history. It is the truth of literature. Any writer whom the thought that he writes does not bring to the thought: ‘I am revolution, only freedom allows me to write,’ in reality does not write [ … ] Literature recognizes itself in revolution, justifies itself by it, and if we have called it Terror it is because its ideal is truly that historic moment when ‘life is the bearer of death and is maintained in death itself,’ in order to get the possibility and truth of discourse from it [ … ]”3  We also know something similar from Czech literature as well—the well-known lyricism of Kundera.

Today’s inundation of marketing with the words “revolution” and “revolutionary” appears on the one hand to be evidence of the absolute emptiness and coopting of these words during “postrevolutionary times.” An advertisement for the Dacia Logan MCV which recently raced around the globe and may currently be viewed on YouTube may serve as an example. In it, Fidel Castro—wearing his favorite uniform and holding a red suitcase—arrives in some sort of heaven for revolutionaries, a house in colonial Spanish style with paint flaking off the walls, concealed from the world behind tropical vegetation. Here he encounters Mao Tse-tung, Lenin, Gandhi, Ho Chi Min, Martin Luther King, Rosa Luxemburg—they are all bored, spending time playing computer games, reading fashion magazines, or playing football. At the back on the veranda Fidel finds Marx and Ernest “Che” Guevara. “It’s time for another revolution,” says Che. “It’s about what people really need,” adds Marx. Cut, followed by shot of the “new and really necessary car.” But is this abuse in a certain sense not justified? The replacement of the old with the new in a never-ending ode to innovation, liberation from all shackles, free consumption in a country of plenty as well as the flattering of an infantile ego which “owns the world”—isn’t all this merely the real fulfillment of revolutionary lyricism? Have not the ringing keys of the “Velvet Revolution” become simply the keys to the new Dacia Logan MCV?

It is no accident that in searching for the possibility of some kind of new revolution, today’s radical left-leaning intelligentsia is also dealing with the question of the subject. Probably the most illustrative in this context is the monumental work of Slavoj Žižek. Yet he seems to be precisely the one thinker who in his defense of the subject unwittingly points to the fact that the modernist subject has become a macabre zombie; for Žižek, the subject is in fact just pure negativity, a black self-devouring hole which can only save itself with a leap of blind faith—a Leninist act of revolution for revolution’s sake …

And yet—is there anything remaining of the legacy of revolution that we should hold on to? When we look at Romantic depictions of the storming of the Bastille, with which the French Revolution began, do we not feel something more than just a red variation on Hollywood kitsch? Is there not some kind of democratic core to the attack on the symbol of tyranny which has outlasted even the age of the great laboratory into which modern science and technology transformed the world?

Yes, but we must stop thinking about the Bastille as a fortress of sovereignty which must be conquered and occupied. The only sovereign in traditional understanding was God and then on his authority (mercy) the king. Modern revolutionary thinking executed the king but instead of beheading the concept of sovereignty as well, it replaced him with the people. The word people is treacherous precisely because it implies the notion of something homogeneous, an entity with many heads but one consciousness. The human community is inherently pluralist, polyphonic, however, which is a fact that every conqueror of the Bastille will find uncomfortable sooner or later. Besides, even a car is a little Bastille of sorts; a fortress in which one can hold out against the outside world, transformed into rapidly passing smudges in a landscape mercilessly subjugated to the demands of transport infrastructure, and allow oneself to be carried along by the illusion of one’s own omnipotence, even though we are powerless prisoners.

We should stop trying to storm the Bastille; it is time to walk around it. The positive aspects which remain of the revolution—the idea of taking government into one’s own hands when it is necessary, of not submitting to the status quo as it “naturally” is—should today take us in the direction of “bypassing” established authority; state institutions have become too interconnected with the hypertrophied and overfattened system, for the act of conquering them not to result in the coopting of the conqueror into the “old structures.”

The Czech President has grasped this perfectly, although his deliberation on of NGOism was meant to be critical and disapproving. “NGOism [ … ] has become a synonym for the aspirations of various interest groups to take over the organization or management of public matters which are normally performed by the state. The difference is that the state must act according to rules stipulated by laws, that the drafting of these laws in every free society is the central theme of political discussion (and thus also of legitimate political disputes) and that state authority is constituted by all citizens on the basis of the principle of democracy. That is not the case with organizations like NGOs.

“The threat of circumventing, replacing, ‘bypassing’ state institutions, which are the sole guarantees of external independence and a guarantor of internal freedom, is present above all in situations where state institutions do not have sufficient natural authority, because they have been discredited for too long as institutions of totalitarian or authoritative regimes. All posttotalitarian countries have similar problems in this respect. But not even countries without this past are immune to it.”4

The author is incorrect when he denies civil society’s democratic character. Democracy means the kind of government in which all citizens may take part in making decisions of public concern—i.e., regardless of privileges given by wealth or the position which they otherwise hold in society. I think that from this viewpoint there is much more democratic potential in civil society today than in state institutions, which essentially defend the interests of oligarchy and balance on the edge of political heart attack. Otherwise, Václav Klaus is correct, however—including when he says that even countries outside of the former Soviet bloc are in need of a bypass. From a historical perspective, the difference between them and the so-called totalitarian regimes is starting to appear increasingly insignificant.

The age of revolutions is over, the zombies of their instigators—the Specters of Marx, as Derrida would say—keep bothering us, however. They cannot find peace. If we wish to give them, our betrayed fathers, justice—”what people really need”—we should not allow ourselves to be carried away by the vainglorious symbol of the Bastille in their wake. The question is, however, if its masters will just let them pass by.


1 / François Furet, Francouzská revoluce, díl 1. Od Turgota k Napoleonovi 1770–1814, Argo, Prague 2004, p. 17.

2 / Immanuel Kant, Kritika čistého rozumu, B XIV, oikoymenh, Prague 2001.

3 / Jacques Derrida and Élisabeth Roudinesco, Co přinese zítřek? Dialog, Karolinum, Prague 2003, p. 123, note 16.

4 / Václav Klaus, “NGO-ismus, nikoli jednotlivé nevládní organizace považuji za nebezpečí pro naši svobodu” (“I consider NGO-ism, rather than individual nongovernmental organizations to be a threat to our society”), Reflex (November 3, 2005), my italics. Available online at: (accessed March 20, 2009).