1/13 | The Modern Concept of Revolution

The Uprising 1/13 Revolution Seminar with Etienne Balibar (Columbia University), Simona Forti (Columbia University), and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Columbia University), moderated by Jesús R. Velasco and Bernard E. Harcourt

September 14, 2017

“In politics, words and their usage are more important than any other weapon.”

—  Reinhart Koselleck, “Historical Criteria of the Modern Concept of Revolution,” 1968.

Revolution. Uprising. Insurrection. Insurgency. Revolt. Disobedience. Standing Ground. Occupy… If indeed it is true that, in politics, words are more important than any other weapon, then surely we must pay heed to what people say when they resist or revolt. We must explore the different modalities of uprising associated with these different concepts.

We had originally called this seminar series Revolution 13/13. That was our original plan, and we martialed thirteen of them, in fact—from the French and American Revolutions of course, and for it’s one hundred’s anniversary this year, the 1917 Russian and Bolshevik Revolutions, but also the scientific, the sexual, the velvet. We had them all, and yet, we were unable to get past the very word “revolution.”

Why? Because the term has become so fraught today. So historicized, so privileged, and raised so high above all its illegitimate children—resistance, revolt, insurgency, disobedience, hacktivism, standing ground… those peripheral, those ancillary, those sometimes aborted struggles for social change. So we changed course somewhat and called this series Uprising 13/13, deciding to focus on those other modalities in large part—but we could not do it without, first, theorizing and rethinking the notion of revolution.

So that is where we start here in this first seminar, with “The Modern Concept of Revolution.”

The essays we read for Uprising 1/13 on the modern concept of revolution—namely, Reinhart Koselleck’s “Historical Criteria of the Modern Concept of Revolution,” Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Etienne Balibar’s “The Idea of Revolution,” Simona Forti’s “The Modern Concept of Revolution,” and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Global Marx”—provide a number of key insights into the complexity of thinking about revolution today.

The starting point, naturally, is Koselleck’s original etymological elaboration of the ancient concepts of revolution—revolution as the cyclical returning to the point of origin, as the astronomical cycle of the stars, as the ancient philosophical progression of constitutions (from monarchy to its dark twin tyranny, to aristocracy and then oligarchy, and finally democracy and ultimately ochlocracy, or mass rule) (Koselleck 2004:45). Koselleck argued that what marks the modern conception of revolution is the passage from the notion of political to social revolution: the idea that a revolution is about social change, about “the social emancipation of all men, [about] transforming the social structure” (Koselleck 2004:52).

Koselleck drew a contrast between the modern 16th and 17th century conception of revolution and the earlier Middle Age uses of terms such as uprising, revolt, riot, insurrection, rebellion, and civil war (Koselleck 2004:47). The latter were connected to a different form of struggle, one that was marked by religious confrontations and inquisitorial struggles. “Civil war, guerre civile, Bürgerkrieg—these were the central concepts by which the suffering and experience of fanatical confessional struggles were precipitated, by means of which, moreover, they were legally formulated” (Koselleck 2004:47).

Etienne Balibar traces a different genealogy, this time back to the Eurocentrism of the modern conception of revolution: the contrast, on his view, is between notions of citizenship embedded in the concept of revolution and ideas of the colonial subject embedded in the notion of uprising or insurgency. For Balibar, revolution relates to uprisings in the same way that the core relates to the periphery: “In the dominated colonial peripheries,” Balibar writes, “there were no ‘revolutions’ but only ‘resistances,’ ‘guerillas,’ uprisings’ and ‘rebellions’” (Balibar 2016:*3). In contrast to these latter peripheral uprisings, the great revolutions of the 19th century “were supposed to be political processes typical for the center because they involve a participation of ‘citizens’ who exist only in the nation-states” (Balibar 2016:*3).

Marx’s classic essay from 1851-52, Eighteenth Brumaire, becomes important here, as a philosophical demonstration of Marx’s philosophy of history as it relates to revolution. The essay reflects, on the one hand, how it might be possible to actualize, philosophically, a materialist conception of history, as evidenced by the unfolding of the various stages of political upheaval—from the first more popular period, from February to May 1848, that proclaimed a social republic, to the second more bourgeois period, from May 1848 to May 1849, that laid the foundations for a bourgeois republic, and so on, to the bourgeois republic, the June insurrection, the parliamentary republic, and ultimately Bonaparte’s coup de main of December 1 and 2, 1851. The historical periodization itself is a tour de force that instantiates Marx’s entire philosophical method.

But simultaneously, on the other hand, Marx’s essay expresses his faith in history and his conviction that the failures of the 1848 revolution serve as the foundations of a coming revolution. The metaphor of the “old mole” drawn from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy—of the old mole that burrows itself until completion, only to break through the crust of the earth when all the work is done—is a most powerful expression of faith in the ultimate success of the revolution. “Well grubbed, old mole!” (Marx 1978:606). Well grubbed, indeed. What faith in the “laws of movement of history,” as Arendt would say!

Koselleck’s own relation to revolution becomes clear in his text, which evinces a certain pessimism or disheartedness–as when he asks, in a plea-full way: “Has not the ‘world revolution’ been reduced to an empty formula which can be appropriated pragmatically by the most diverse groups of countries and flogged to death?” (Koselleck 2004:26).

Simona Forti embraces a particular vision of new spaces of revolutions—with the emphasis on the s, on the horizontal participations, under the sign of Arendt, rejecting the determinism of Marx in all its forms, social, historical, and natural. (Forti 2017)

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak reminds us, in her “Global Marx,” that a conceptual problem is baked into the early incarnations of the modern concept of revolution, especially in Marx’s original twining of knowledge and revolutionary action. “’Knowing’ Marx’s writings,” Spivak emphasizes—and we might instead say here “knowing” the modern concept of revolution—”preserves the old conviction that the idea of knowledge is knowledge about knowledge, halting Thesis 11 before its end:  the supplementary task is to try to change the world.” (Spivak 2017)

In this context, Simona Forti develops a powerful argument, against the singular collective experience that produces a concept of revolution, for a multiplicity of revolutionary spaces. Drawing on Arendtian strands, Forti envisages a space for more polyvalent conceptions of revolutions that represent, in her words, “a new political space, a space of horizontal participation, against any social, historical, and natural determinism” (Forti 2017).

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, for her part, makes a powerful intervention,  drawing on her “thirty years of work in a backward district of West Bengal,” and invites us to “get out of this acceptance of powerlessness as normal, to stop us-and-them-ing, to acknowledge complicity, and act the conjuncture.” (Spivak 2017)

These texts raise provocative questions about the meaning of revolution today, and push us to interrogate more deeply, as we did in Uprising 1/13, the modern concept of revolution.

Welcome to Uprising 1/13!

[Read full post here and here. © Bernard E. Harcourt]

This seminar discussed two texts: Reinhardt Koselleck’s chapter,“Historical Criteria of the Modern Concept of Revolution,” from Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, and Karl Marx’s 18 Brumaire of Louis Napoléon. Both texts can be found in the readings  for Uprising 1/13, in the right column here. Also, please read the remarkable posts by our guests, also in the right column here.

September 14, 2017

The Rotunda in Low Memorial Library