Bernard E. Harcourt | Epilogue on Revolution

By Bernard E. Harcourt

I had originally suggested, in my previous post, that it was largely the modern historians who spoiled the potential of revolutionary action by inventing “the modern concept of revolution”—twined with its inherent exhaustion or inevitable failure, or worse, its self-inscribed terror or preemptive counterrevolution. The rich conversation at our first seminar has now led me to reconsider that position and, at least tentatively, to propose that it was perhaps not simply the historians, but also and importantly the critical thinkers of power in the post May 1968 period that changed our view of revolution today. This revision serves, incidentally, as a perfect segway to our next seminar on October 5, 2017, on Maoist insurgencies.

A working hypothesis for now, then, is that the new conceptualization of power following the student and worker uprisings of May ‘68 fundamentally displaced the notions of sovereign power and sovereignty that grounded a more conventional or classically modern concept of revolution—a modern concept that fundamentally still rested on a Hobbesian concept of sovereignty. The post-68 critique of modern revolution emphasized the reproduction of power: the fact that seizing the institutions of the state would not necessarily change society or produce justice because the deeper structures would simply reproduce the older dynamics of power relations. As a result, revolution, understood as the seizing of state power by a revolutionary class, would not begin to achieve the transformation of relations of power that would be necessary to genuinely restructure society or achieve a just society.

This became clear during Simona Forti’s discussion and emphasis—in response to questions by Rosalind Morris, Jean Cohen, Katryn Evinson, and Adam Tooze—on the importance of focusing on the kinds of subjects that form the revolutionary actor; also in Karuna Mantena’s inquiry probing the question of the exhaustion of the idea of revolution; in Jesús Velasco’s brilliant intervention on revolution as “the process of soul-transmigration“; as well in Gayatri Spivak’s forceful reminder—in response to questions by Makhotso Lengane, Charles Pletcher, and others—that we need to reimagine revolution with each new generation, as well as her insistence that “national liberation is not a revolution”; and especially in Kendall Thomas’s reminder of the coup d’état and assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first elected prime minister of Congo, and his replacement by Mobutu—which may be the perfect illustration of the reproduction of earlier colonial relations of power under the guise of a changed (in this case, post-colonial) state.

This working hypothesis—which might form part of our next discussion at Uprising 2/13—harkens back to the conversation in Foucault 2/13 on Théories et institutions pénales (1972), especially to the sharp conflict between Etienne Balibar and François Ewald. Recall how the discussion there revolved around the distinction, emphasized especially in the writings of Louis Althusser as well as Foucault, between state institutions and control of political power—especially in Althusser’s “Ideology and Ideological State Appartuses (Notes towards an Investigation)” in 1969.

This tension writhed throughout the student uprisings of May ’68. At one end, many of the young militants firmly believed that seizing and transforming the state institutions were the most important tasks—far more important than simply gaining political power—because controlling political power did not guarantee fundamental change in society. According to these militants, there had to be a deep transformation of the apparatuses of the state—for instance, of the educational institutions and universities, key sites of reproduction. By contrast, for other militants, the institutions were mere instruments or tools, and the real struggle had to be over power. The latter followed more closely what Althusser referred to as the classic “Marxist theory of the State,” namely the idea that “the objective of the class struggle concerns State power” and “the proletariat must seize State power in order to destroy the existing bourgeois State apparatus.” (On Ideology, p. 15)

Much of this played out, during and after ’68 in France, in the internecine battles between adherents of the French communist party (PCF) who remained loyal to the Soviet Union and to more classical ideas of a vanguard proletarian revolution, and the younger Maoists who formed the various groupuscules around Marxist-Leninist and Maoist thought, publications like Cahiers Marxistes-Léninistes and La Cause du people, and associations like the Union des jeunesses communistes marxistes-léninistes (UJC-ML) and later the Gauche prolétaire.[1] Most of the intellectual energy of the early 1970s would pore over these questions in an effort to rethink power—through notions of rhizomes, discipline, capillarity, etc. Foucault would entirely displace the modern Hobbesian notion of power with his concept of “relations of power,” leading to his famous discussion of power in Discipline and Punish on pages 26-27 of the English edition.

These new ways of thinking about capillary and disciplinary power that suffuses every crevice of every institution and practice, from the family to the factory floor, and new ways of thinking about the reproduction of power—especially the very centrality of the notion of reproduction from the 1970s—undermined earlier modes of revolutionary action. To put it crudely, revolution rests on a sovereigntist notion of power, whereas uprising rests on the premise that seizing political power will not necessarily change relations of power unless all the institutions—educational, religion, familial, etc.—and subjects themselves are fundamentally transformed.

The key question, then, becomes: in these new times, these critical troubling times—in a digital age that differs in such important ways from even the post-May ’68 period—how does power circulates in society? And how can we challenge that circulation or power, rise up or transform society to make it more just? It is to these issues that we will turn next time, you will find all the readings here, as well as in the first guest post here. Please check for the other guest posts here.


[1] Richard Wolin has an excellent discussion of this in chapter 4 of The Wind from the East.