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What do contact with extraterrestrials, the return of Jesus Christ, apocalypse, and revolution all have in common? In a sense, they are all imagined redemptions — epic reset buttons for humanity. Onto these we can pin our heartbreaks and frustrations with the world as it is, with all its suffering, mire and messy details. Any of these redemptive apocalypses can serve as the X that solves the daunting problem of our sense of impotency. This messianic X — this unknown and imaginary seismic intervention — might help us to hold onto a kind of hope despite overwhelming evidence of a hopeless reality. Somehow, someday, something will occur that stops the madness, and we will be able to begin anew.
We need hope — in life and also in political mobilization. Hope is an essential ingredient in scaling up collective action beyond the limited pool of martyrs, saints and counter-cultural usual suspects. Organizing large-scale collective power requires something of an art of raising popular hopes and expectations. A long-term vision of a radically transformed world can be an important grounding for such hope. And isn’t such radical transformation precisely the idea of social and political revolution? Isn’t it a bit unfair to include revolution as an item on the same list as the Biblical end of days?
Perhaps it is a bit unfair. It depends on whether we mean revolution as horizon or revolution as apocalypse. Do we imagine a revolutionary restructuring of power relations in society as an all-or-nothing totalizing moment or as an aspirational horizon, something to always be moving towards? If the former, then what incentive do we have to study the details of the terrain where we are presently situated? Why would we bother to strategize about overcoming the particular obstacles that block our way today, if we believe that the accumulation of all obstacles will ultimately add up to a grand crisis that will somehow magically usher in a new era?
Believing that things will “have to get worse before they get better,” we may become uninterested in — perhaps even sabotaging of — efforts to improve real-life conditions in the here and now. After all, why put a band-aid on a gaping wound? Why prolong the life of an oppressive system? With such logic we can excuse ourselves from the trouble of getting to know our political terrain. It is, after all, the very mess we hope to avoid.
If, on the other hand, we imagine revolutionary change as a horizon toward which we orient ourselves, such a vision may be of use, so long as it grounds us in a political struggle in the here and now. So let’s interrogate our attachment to the word revolution — even as a horizon.
Many of my friends like to think of themselves and their efforts as revolutionary. I am tempted to fancy myself a revolutionary too — it sounds sexy enough — but what does this label really mean today? In the present context in the United States, the words revolution and revolutionary have been mostly emptied of their contents. Their meanings are more than slightly ambiguous. Proponents of revolution range from radical Leftists to libertarians and members of the Tea Party. What does advocating for revolution mean then? Is it not merely a more extreme and totalizing way of advocating for “change”? The question begs itself: What kind of change? Revolution for what?
Answering these questions will provide us with political content. Revolution is not itself the content, it’s one of the means we might use to deliver it. If we are to articulate a horizon to guide our day-to-day political struggles, shouldn’t that horizon be the content of a social vision, rather than scenes from the battles we must fight along the way?
Even as a means, revolution is less than instructive. Today in the context of the U.S. Left, the label revolutionary serves largely as a reference to inspirational historical moments — and contemporary moments in other countries — and as a signifier of belonging, or “getting it,” within radical subcultures, more than an instructive path or framework for social, economic and political change. When we say “revolution” today — if we mean something beyond an empty signifier of sub-cultural belonging — we are mostly, vaguely, referring to the overthrow of governments in specific historical circumstances. Social justice-directed revolutions have overthrown monarchies, feudal systems and colonial governments, but the “revolutionary” forces that have overthrown democratic elected governments in the past century — however much we may critique how democratic they actually are — have by and large been right-wing reactionary forces, usually through military coups.
On the other hand, one could tweak the definition of revolution to make it fit the context of advanced capitalist democracies: one could argue that revolution is about overthrowing the current order. Presently, we are subject to an oppressive capitalist order, and we are working to overthrow that regime. I am fine with the signifying label revolutionary being attributed to me if it is with this intended meaning. But still, what is the point of the label? What is the value added? What does it do for us, besides earning us cool points in our little ‘revolutionary’ social clubs? What does it accomplish politically?
What am I getting at here? Why does this matter? It matters because, as an ambiguous signifier of belonging within political groups, the word revolutionary can privilege certain tactics and approaches over others. As a signifying label, revolutionary is meant to distinguish a change agent within a broader field of change agents — to differentiate oneself and one’s group within a broader alignment of groups working for social justice — perhaps even more than it is meant to distinguish us from the all-out defenders of the status quo.
As such, the posed opposite of revolutionary is less the status quo or elite power than a reformist approach to change. In extreme form, this tendency lumps “reformists” together with the status quo and its defenders into one big impenetrable monolith that “revolutionaries” are unequivocally against. It sets up a false dichotomy of revolution versus reform — a framework that may sometimes hold merit or useful warnings, but that can be paralyzing without further contextualization, clarification and nuance.
Where revolution serves as an ambiguous signifier of belonging to radical subcultures, group members may be inclined to do things, to say things, even to wear things that seem “revolutionary,” and to distance themselves from whatever reeks of “reformism,” including the efforts and organizations of key social blocs that any serious “revolutionary” project must ultimately include in its political alignment.
It is true that, in today’s landscape, such efforts and organizations tend to have limited goals and win compromised victories, if they win at all. Dismissing such reform efforts as a general principle, however, does not make one a revolutionary. It is, rather, a sign of purism, fatalism and apocalyptic thinking — and often an abstract politics that emerges from a disconnected social position of relative privilege. This amounts to revolution as apocalypse - what is needed is a cataclysmic, never mind catastrophic, reset. Any improvement in the situation of real people is dismissed, perhaps even denounced, as prolonging the life of “the system.”
Of course, not everyone who uses the word revolution is guilty of all or any of the above. After all, it is mostly an empty signifier. Advertisers love to brand the shit they’re selling as “revolutionary” too. The point is that there can be dangers in framing social, economic and political change efforts using terms whose applicability is historically contingent — at least if we lack an analysis of this contingency. The word revolution conjures up the idea of overthrowing a government, and as such is descriptive of a particular model and moment of transformation that mostly applies to the radical overhaul of particular kinds of governments in particular historical contexts, namely feudalism, monarchies, dictatorships and colonial governments. As such, our attachment to the abstract idea of revolution might be something like holding a hammer and perceiving every problem one as a nail.
Moreover, even in historical revolutionary contexts, revolution has never been a panacea. Problems and injustices still have to be struggled against. “The revolution” is a moment, certainly an important one, in an ongoing political struggle with no end point. Most of the moments in that struggle are far less spectacular than the moment of dramatic upheaval.
In The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, sociologist Daniel Bell describes how “the real problems arise the ‘day after the revolution,’ when the mundane world again intrudes upon consciousness.” Bell argues that “Our fascination with the apocalypse blinds us to the mundane: the relations of exchange, economic and social; the character of work and occupations; the nature of family life; and the traditional modes of conduct which regulate everyday life.” Social change is “much slower, and the processes more complex than the dramaturgic mode of the apocalyptic vision, religious or revolutionary, would have us believe.”
If we project a totalizing imaginary-future moment onto our own situation, we may also fixate on present-day moments that seem to carry the essence of our ideas about such an imagined “revolution.” We may elevate ritualistic signifiers of revolutionary zeal above winning real-world victories and above the patient construction of social bases of collective power that could win bigger, more systemic — we might even say revolutionary — changes.
Revolution as apocalypse or as a totalizing moment is highly related to utopianism. The practical implications of the two concepts are equivalent. With both orientations a post-revolutionary, utopian vision of the future can become the distorted lens through which to view the messy present. Nothing in present-day society, including stepping-stone victories, can measure up to utopian standards. It is as if the revolutionary or utopian “dreamer” is afraid of contaminating the purity of his or her vision with the grit of real life.
In reality, the seeds of society’s “redemption” — the fits and starts of social justice struggles — are always manifest in the fabric of what already exists in society. The job of effective change agents is to identify and encourage these fits and starts; to awaken and empower the “better angels” that we find in our histories and our contemporary cultures; to claim and contest both history and culture, rather than try to build from scratch in the ashes of an imaginary-future apocalypse.
This is not to suggest that we give up on big structural changes — even including an end to capitalism. To the extent that “revolutionary” means “big structural changes” I am all for being revolutionary. The problem here is not the radicalness of the end goal; the problem is all-or-nothing apocalyptic thinking about political change along the way. If the structures of society were to collapse tomorrow, why would society reconstruct itself in a way that substantially differs from its present structure? A revolutionary social justice movement will not magically ascend in the wake of catastrophe.
A movement gains strength by organizing over time, by showing more and more people that it can succeed. By winning small victories, it begins to overcome popular resignation, awakening hope in people that it is possible to fight for something and win — that collective action “gets the goods.” If a movement is incapable of winning even small things, why should anyone believe it capable of winning a revolution — of accelerating “from zero to sixty” in a mere moment?
Most people are not going to join movements because they want to ride with others into the apocalypse; they join when they have enough reason to believe that the movement can act effectively as a vehicle to bring about changes that matter to them. It’s down to us to show them that this is possible.
This article first appeared in Waging Nonviolence and is republished here with permission.