Suraiya Zubair Banu | Talking About a Revolution


By Suraiya Zubair Banu


Marx’s statement that “Men [sic] make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past”, leaves us with many unanswered questions: Which “men”? Which circumstances? Transmitted how and by whom? Further, how do the answers to these questions change if the history of the modern world is the history of revolution?


The project of Uprising 13/13 – interrogating the work of revolutionary thinkers past and present, talking about revolution amongst ourselves and to others with access – would be worse off without the inclusion of self-conscious deliberation about our role as students and scholars in revolutionary history. Answering the “who” and “how” by investigating the processes through which revolutionary thought has been and continues to be manufactured and disseminated cannot, therefore, be an afterthought to broader descriptive or normative inquiries into the concept of revolution.


  1. Why Talk About the Revolution?


As Simona Forti notes, revolutionary concepts are not only used to register change, but have themselves been agents of social and political change. This has proven true in cases where those who called for change used existing theories to conceptualize their goals as well as in those cases where revolutionary ideas appeared to coalesce through the process of revolution itself.


The first discussion of the 13/13 series thus made questions about the form and content of revolutionary talk central to the conversation. While there was broad agreement between the speakers that revolutions do not arise without an imaginary and a shared language, there was pushback against the idea that this meant that there would be or even could be a single revolutionary ideal based on past revolutions. Kossellick’s eight revolutionary attributes provide a framework that captures a great deal of the concept of revolution and its development, but we are nevertheless left to determine whether these add up to anything more than an “empty formula” due to breadth of phenomena now categorized as revolutions. Given this difficulty, we may be inclined to accept the call to “let the dead bury their dead” and decline to base our understandings of current or future events on historicized conceptions of revolution.


Arendt cautions against looking to history as proof of the “irresistibility” of a particular revolutionary form and allowing history to make fools of us by proving us right. The Marxist-Hegelian notion that revolutions are a “moment in which the laws of history…are implemented with the revolutionary ‘subjects’ only acting as more or less conscious instruments” is, according to Arendt, a historical fallacy caused by looking back at events and interpreting them only from the vantage point of the spectator. This was the mindset of the “men of the revolution” who saw their role as bringing about the inevitable, rather than acting to shape an undetermined future. Arendt’s dismissal of strongly deterministic concepts of revolution tends to be supported even by Marx, whose writings in the 18th Brumaire and elsewhere create space for contingent realities within what is often seen as a teleological framework. In fact, Marxian historical materialism implies that new factual realities will often require new theories of progress and change.


Arendt’s critique of the Marxist emphasis on historical inevitability fails to distinguish between the revolutionary actor as an individual and the revolutionary actor as part of a collective. For Marx, historical processes are understood at the class level but countless options exist for the success or failure of the revolution at the level of the choices of individual agents. While the uprising of a collective is in Marx’s view the only possible model for change, making the collective the most important agent of change, the collective is itself a subject of the revolutionary actions of the individuals who create it. Similarly, individuals through their participation in a collective can both be revolutionary subjects who may be swept up by historical currents as well as revolutionary actors who create and sustain the mechanisms of the revolution (or not!) through their choices.


The danger appears to be found in the attitude revolutionary actors take to historical ideas of revolution and not in their looking to history at all. Talking about the revolution allows us to position ourselves as actors within history as well as subjects of historical forces. The act creates space for us to change and build on received ideas and ideologies and to act within and upon the collective consciousness that the conversation creates. Acknowledging our own agency as thinkers and speakers as well as making ourselves the subjects of revolutionary conversations therefore becomes vital to understanding the necessity of talking about the revolution.


  1. Talking about a Global Revolution


Allowing past conceptions of revolution to enrich us, rather than constrain us, may also create the space to talk about a “global revolution”, by guiding our understanding of who the subjects and objects of revolutionary consciousness and revolutionary action have been, and can be. As Balibar notes: “the phenomenology of revolutions in history is primarily a description of the becoming subject of the groups or the “forces” that are virtually revolutionary, or can be said to have a revolutionary interest in ‘changing the world’”.


Building revolutionary consciousness is fundamental to the revolutionary project of all the scholars we have read so far, and as mentioned above, is necessary to understanding why we should talk about revolution at all. Yet participation in the revolutionary conversations we have had at Uprising 13/13 and in the works we have read is clearly limited – geographically, demographically. The eurocentrism of popular revolutionary talk is evident even as revolutions in which Europe is neither the subject nor the object explode our conception of what revolution means. One way to move past this could be to accept Balibar’s account of the bourgeois revolution that contains the cause of its own destruction and extend this to mean the ultimate destruction of Eurocentric revolutionary talk. Still, this leaves the world with the task of creating a new revolution out of the ashes of the old, in previously unpredictable ways.


If we want the “content” of future revolutions to go beyond the “phrase”, or if we are even looking for new phrases altogether, what does this mean for revolutionary talk within institutions like Columbia? Gayatari Chakravorty Spivak sheds light on the some of the complications involved in revolutionary talk within institutions in Global Marx?, where she emphasizes our “complicity with the prevailing modes of production”, which includes the global production of knowledge and its effects on collective consciousnesses. Our efforts are obstructed not only because the structures of our institutions are “not prepared to be taught what [they] cannot know – how not to control top-down” but more fundamentally because they often refuse to engage in the “imaginative training” that is needed.


Changing the structures of institutions at the top is not a task that should be put aside or forgotten. Yet attempting to work within them can only take us so far. Chakravorty Spivak is rightfully skeptical of the possibilities of “global” revolutionary talk through capital driven media technology. Our faith in the algorithms of the internet is continually shaken and technological advances continually create new extensions of old powers.


Arendt’s distinction between pity and compassion sheds some light on the difficulties that arise because of the orientations of our conversations – speaking “down” to subaltern and stateless others rather than with them. The stop gap measures of human rights litigation and international development have “just as much vested interest in the existence of the unhappy as thirst for power has vested interest in the existence of the weak” because of their dependence on existing structures.


The distance between the “top”, “middle” and “bottom” makes imaginative training and the “rearranging of desire” a complicated task. But perhaps teaching or even just talking with a view to bringing about a uniform global revolutionary consciousness should not be the goal. The heterogeneity of arenas in which revolutionary action is necessary makes imagining a single revolutionary imaginary difficult and perhaps unhelpful. Arendt’s distinction between “pity” and “compassion” is rooted in the ability of the compassionate to orient oneself to “all men [sic] in their singularity, that is, without lumping them together into some such entity as one suffering mankind”.


  1. Talking about a Revolution in America


This takes us back to the familiar point that inclusive conversations must make space for the local, even if our aims are ultimately global. I would therefore like to finish this essay by taking a brief look at revolutionary talk in the United States, which provides a familiar context within which to examine the effects of talking about revolution.


Reading Marx’s 18th Brumaire in 2017 allows us to draw a number of rough yet satisfying connections between Marx’s account of the election and subsequent coup d’état of Louis Bonaparte, and the 2016 election of Donald Trump. Many Americans, like the unhappy French bourgeoisie, were “struck like a thunderbolt from a clear sky” and depressed to find that they had let themselves be taken by surprise when the election did not result in business as usual. America now has to reckon with how it produced a leader whose “confused groping hither and thither […] seeks now to win, now to humiliate first one class and then another and arrays all of them uniformly against him, whose practical uncertainty forms a highly comical contrast to the imperious categorical style of the governmental decrees”.


Part of the explanation may be found in what Arendt considers the “fatal failure” of American post-revolutionary thought: obsession with the possibility of a French style totalitarian revolution and amnesia about America’s own revolutionary ideals. The inability to recognize the variety of revolutionary possibilities, according to Arendt, led to a revolutionary conversation marked by “intense fear”. This anxiety, which sees the revolutionary project as inherently “totalizing” becomes apparent in the energy that is put towards the counter-revolution, which through its efforts becomes a force with all the violence and permanence of the revolution that was originally feared. Balibar’s notion that “there is no revolution without a counter-revolution” resonates with our experiences of revolutionary actions and counter-actions today.


The dynamic of co-existing revolution and counter revolution, based as it is in anxiety about repeating the past, is clearly nothing new. Just as Trump has been cast as the counter-revolutionary savior from perceived revolutionary elements in society, so Bonaparte was the response to a climate in which “Every demand of the simplest bourgeois financial reform, of the most ordinary liberalism, of the most formal republicanism, of the most insipid democracy, is simultaneously castigated as an “attempt on society”.


Overreliance on European conceptions of revolution is not the only problem with revolutionary talk in America. Once again, the orientation of liberal attempts at revolutionary talk – concerned only with helping the undifferentiated masses rather than entertaining the need to reform its own structures – has led to a “confused mixture of high-flown phrases and actual uncertainty and clumsiness…enthusiastic striving for innovation and… deeply rooted domination of the old routine, of … apparent harmony of the whole society and … profound estrangement of its elements”. The anxiety and uncertainty of centrist elements within a revolutionary movement thus contribute to the counter-revolution, fueled by the tendency of revolutionary movements to eat their own by constantly seeking out and attempting to eliminate its enemies. Counter-revolution also comes from within, through the “limitation of revolutionary objectives”. Yet, when this centrist force is faced with a true counter-revolutionary movement, it “cries out about the stupidity of the masses the vile multitude, that has betrayed it”.


Talking about the revolution is a necessary but fraught undertaking. The pitfalls of revolutionary talk described above: denial of agency, eurocentricity, exclusivity and over-generalization are all noticeable aspects of conversations about revolution in the United States. The US example shows us how failing to talk about revolution, failing to stay in conversation with those who have talked about it in the past, and failing to extend the conversation to include marginalized voices can create real setbacks to revolutionary action. This seminar is just one part of a larger conversation about where we are going with the revolution and a welcome opportunity to learn about and participate in revolutionary talk from around the world and in the United States (and, in the case of Hacktivism, arguably outside our geographic bounds completely). So, although it may not be quite true that we can talk ourselves out of this mess, or that talking can be enough to bring about global justice, we can at least attempt to support the revolution by pushing the conversation forward.



Arendt, Hannah, On Revolution, Penguin, 1990

Balibar, Étienne, The Idea of Revolution: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Chakravorty Spivak, Gayatri, Global Marx

Forti, Simona, The Modern Concept of Revolution

Koselleck, Reinhardt. “Historical Criteria of the Modern Concept of Revolution.” In Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time. Columbia University Press, 2004

Marx, Karl. 18 Brumaire of Louis Napoléon. International Publishers Co, 1994.



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