Charles Pletcher | Revolution: Wheeling around in our tracks to go back

By Charles Pletcher


In the first chapter of the Eighteenth Brumaire, Karl Marx writes, “The former revolutions required recollections of past world history in order to smooth their own content. The revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead in order to arrive at its own content. There the phrase went beyond the content—here the content goes beyond the phrase.” In Uprising 1/13’s discussion, Étienne Balibar proposed that, “Any revolutionary process that does not end in its opposite remains attached to the initial gesture.” Nineteenth-century revolution, in this light, looks like an attempt to break free from its cyclical attachment to the dead revolutions that gave birth to it. But, as Balibar notes, “The word ‘revolution’ has to come from somewhere”—we cannot even name revolution without invoking its histories. In this reflection, I want to draw attention to some of the histories and attachments that emerged over the course of our discussion with the hope of finding some history for further exploration. I want to consider—with the benefit of ample hindsight—the portrait of revolution (or “revolution”) that emerged from our discussion.


Revolution, of course, is nothing new. In Sophocles’ Antigone (first performed around 442 BCE), a guard bursts onto the stage to report the illegal burial of Polyneices, the ousted king of Thebes who had shared the throne with his brother Eteocles:

ἄναξ, ἐρῶ μὲν οὐχ ὅπως τάχους ὕπο

δύσπνους ἱκάνω κοῦφον ἐξάρας πόδα·

πολλὰς γὰρ ἔσχον φροντίδων ἐπιστάσεις

ὁδοῖς κυκλῶν ἐμαυτὸν εἰς ἀναστροφήν. (Sophocles ll. 223-226)


My lord, I admit it’s not that I’ve come through breathless haste having lifted my swift feet from the earth: I had many stops for thinking and turning around (kuklōn) on my way to go back (anastrophēn).


The guard’s convoluted syntax and haughty diction do not conceal his reservations. He has reasons for his worries: Creon’s interdiction of Polyneices’ burial comes from his concern that burying a traitor would foment the overthrow of the government that he means to rescue. Anastrophē, the word that the guard uses for “return,” has multiple meanings in this light. In the first line, anastrophē refers to the acute accent thrown back to the upsilon in the final word; to Creon’s ears, the guard’s “return” has the ring of “revolution,” another of anastrophē’s ancient denotations.


The revolution that Creon fears, however, concerns only Theban high-society—those people outside the royal family might spread rumors about the leaders of their city, but they ultimately have no say, revolution or not. During our discussion, Balibar noted that Marx produced his Eighteenth Brumaire “from within revolutionary events.” The scope of these revolutionary events, Marx points out in the preface, has grown to encompass a wider swath of humanity than ever before. He writes,

In [the] superficial historical analogy [of Caesarism] the main point is forgotten, namely, that in ancient Rome the class struggle took place only within a privileged minority, between the free rich and the free poor, while the great productive mass of the population, the slaves, formed the purely passive pedestal for these combatants. People forget Sismondi’s significant saying: The Roman proletariat lived at the expense of society, while modern society lives at the expense of the proletariat. With so complete a difference between the material, economic conditions of the ancient and the modern class struggles, the political figures produced by them can likewise have no more in common with one another than the Archbishop of Canterbury has with the High Priest Samuel.

We can already see Marx leaving behind past revolutions and turning revolution forward towards the dissolution of the old society and the overthrow of the old power (Marx, “Critical Notes on Critical Notes on the Article: ‘The King of Prussia and Social Reform. By a Prussian’; cited by Koselleck on p. 52). I have not, though, just introduced the Antigone’s guard simply to toss him out with the Marxian revolution. Rather, I want to suggest that Marx draws his position in part from the understanding that revolutionary language has always contained within it the possibility of looking forward instead of back. Like the guard, revolution might have for a long time lurched forward despite its “many stops for thinking and turning around in [its] tracks to go back.”


As became clear over the course of our discussion, the concept of revolution resists being pinned down. Simona Forti, drawing on Reinhart Koselleck’s “Historical Criteria of the Modern Concept of Revolution,” suggests that “[the] terms that define revolution have changed in modernity [i.e., following Koselleck, after 1789],” adding, “For Koselleck, the words themselves generate change.” Koselleck himself writes,


As with the German concept of Geschichte [“history”] which in the form of “history pure and simple” contained within itself the possibilities of all individual histories, Revolution congealed into a collective singular which appeared to unite within itself the course of all individual revolutions. Hence, revolution became a metahistorical concept, completely separated, however, from its naturalistic origin and henceforth charged with ordering historically recurrent convulsive experiences. (Koselleck 50)


Revolution, like history itself, brings together all events attached to it in a single narrative. “Revolution” no longer represents just a single convulsion in this timeline but all of the convulsions leading up to the present moment. Forti notes modernity’s tendency to look at history as dramatic experience, so that any experience of present revolution entails experiencing its ordered revolutionary lineage. This experience, in turn, leads to the present convulsion as revolution tries at once to break free from its lineage and to turn back to its past—as Forti puts it, “In order for revolution to keep moving, it needs to find tension.”


Revolution feeds on revolution: “The uniform and natural horizon of history has since been left far behind; the accelerative experience [draws] forth new perspectives imbued with the concept of Revolution” (Koselleck 50). Our revolution no longer looks back but instead gathers up its histories and aims at changing the future. Revolution no longer deals with return but overturn. Koselleck explains, “In 1794, Wieland had carefully registered this new vocabulary of revolution, at the time still a linguistic borrowing: the intention of the Jacobins was, he wrote, ‘to make out of the French Revolution a Social Revolution, that is, an overturning of all currently existing states’” (Koselleck 52). Revolutionary tension no longer comes from revolution’s backwards glance.


Instead, revolutionary tension emerges from the experience of revolution itself and from its aim, to quote Marx again, to “take its poetry … from the future” (18th Brumaire, ch. 1). During the discussion at Uprising 1/13, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak reminded us that Marx, in the first chapter of the 18th Brumaire, “is not talking about poetic inspiration but about poetry itself.” Accordingly, Marx wants to view revolution no longer as recuperative act but a creative one. But how do we get past past revolutions? Spivak poses the question, “Can we think in any way but historically?” and notes, “The idea form-content is what lets us read form.” In a similar way, Spivak suggests, the idea of revolution-history lets us read revolution. Or is it that the idea of history-revolution lets us read history?


In Chapter 8 of the 18th Brumaire, Marx turns his attention to the peasants under Louise Bonaparte. He writes,

In the uprisings after the coup d’état, a part of the French peasants protested, arms in hand, against their own vote of December 10, 1848. The school they had gone to since 1848 had sharpened their wits. But they had inscribed themselves in the historical underworld; history held them to their word, and the majority was still so implicated that precisely in the reddest departments the peasant population voted openly for Bonaparte.

The peasants cannot rise up because they cannot escape the history that pushes them toward uprising. Marx, at first, seems to suffer the same fate by basing his analysis in the history of their failed revolt and—ghastlier still—populating this analysis with references to mythical and historical worlds of Greece and Rome: near the beginning of Chapter 8 alone, he writes, “The bourgeoisie never tired of crying out to the revolution what St. Arsenius cried out to the Christians: ‘Fuge, tace, quiesce!’” and, “No Circe using black magic has distorted that work of art, the bourgeois republic, into a monstrous shape.” These references, though, do not consign Marx’s analysis to some mythological history but instead underscore the remote and fantastical underpinnings of the bourgeois imaginary.


“Marx,” Koselleck writes, “sought to engender a learning process which would, through the acquisition of a new revolutionary language, found the singularity of the coming revolution” (Koselleck 54). In this view, Marx adopts the concepts of history and myth and shapes them into a forward-looking revolutionary language; he pits revolutionary history against itself in order to undermine its backward turns and point it toward the future. This process, too, becomes part of the revolutionary task. We might think of it as our “stops to think on our way to go back” even as we press on. Koselleck writes, “The social revolution must write off the past and create its substance out of the future” (Koselleck 54). We must account for the past—write it off, debts paid—and compose poetry of and for the future. Like Sophocles’ guard, we hesitate, stop, and think—and then, we rush on.


Works Cited

Koselleck, Reinhart. “Historical Criteria of the Modern Concept of Revolution” in Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. 43-57.

Marx, Karl. “Critical Notes on the Article: ‘The King of Prussia and Social Reform.’ By a Prussian.” 1999. (1844) 1 November 2017. <>.

Marx, Karl. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. 1999. (1852) 11 September 2017. <>.

Sophocles. Antigone. Ed. Mark Griffith. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

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