Bernard E. Harcourt | On Revolution: An Introduction

By Bernard E. Harcourt

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

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

Is it possible to think through the modern concept of “revolution” outside our own personal and political relation to revolutionary action and our own critical times? Is it even possible to genuinely historicize the concept of “revolution” when we ourselves, inextricably, are trapped in a historical maelstrom that prevents us from knowing our future and perhaps even present predicaments?

I fear that the answer is: No.

This is precisely what makes the modern concept of revolution (in that modern singular) so fraught. So thorny. So, impossible. So problematic, indeed, that I too ask myself whether our engagement with revolution is not an impediment to social action.

This is a deep thread that runs through the essays we are interrogating for Uprising 1/13—a deep thread that manifests itself in manifold ways:

  • In, for instance, the looming failure of revolution that chills action because of the very anticipation and fear of failure—because of what Etienne Balibar refers to as “the accumulation of factors which make the failure of revolutions their only possible outcome, therefore depriving them of their historical meaning and their political effectivity” (Balibar 2016:*6)
  • In, for instance, the damning, recurring thesis that revolution leads only to terror—or, as Simona Forti, writes, that revolution “hosts in its genetic code the mark of terror and totalitarianism” (Forti 2017)—an argument made famous by François Furet and others, and captured so elegantly by Forti: “From Robespierre to Lenin, everything is explained and legitimated in the name of the revolutionary process and its ultimate goal: from war to summary executions, from the guillotine to concentration camps” (Forti 2017). Or in the resulting ultimatum that the radicality of such a position leaves no leeway for discussion or compromise, for any real debate: the “theological” critique of revolution is “so radical and all embracing that it leaves no margin for ‘falsification’ or ‘negotiation.’ Take it or leave it.” (Forti 2017)
  • In the caution—the prescient warning—that revolution only brings about a more powerful “preemptive counter-revolution” (Balibar 2016:*22)—a theme we will come back to, especially in the context of our last session on counterrevolutions.

But more than that, in the problem of words and things—of a time, today, where the words and the things have become so intertwined that it is practically impossible to talk about revolution without merely interpreting it—hoisted, as we are, by our own discursive and disciplinary practices. At a time when knowledge and gewalt (power, violence, action) have become so reflexively defined and imbricated.

And so, the question arises: How can we both remain true to the linguistic turn, to the centrality of discourse, and to the insights of post-structuralism, yet at the same time get beyond the paralyzing nature of the linguistic and etymological insights about revolution? How can we both say that words and their usage are more important than any other weapon, as Koselleck ends his essay, and simultaneously, at the same time, in the same breath, proclaim that action, activism, le passage a l’acte, is what we need to explore, examine, dissect, understand, study, and, perhaps, enact?


The brilliant essays we read for Uprising 1/13 on “The Modern Concept of Revolution”—Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Koselleck’s “Historical Criteria of the Modern Concept of Revolution,” Etienne Balibar’s “The Idea of Revolution,” Simona Forti’s “The Modern Concept of Revolution,” and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Global Marx”—each reflect this puzzle.

Marx’s essay is a classic in this regard, not the least of which because his own relation to revolution was inextricably linked to his philosophy of history. The two are inseparable. The Eighteenth Brumaire, in this sense, is the most remarkable philosophical demonstration of his own philosophy of history and political ambition. It shows, on the one hand, how to actualize, philosophically, a materialist conception of history, as witnessed in the very 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, it expresses Marx’s faith in history and his conviction that the failures of the 1848 revolution serve as the foundations of the 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 who burrows to completion, only to break through the crust of the earth when all the work is done—is the most powerful expression of that aspiration. “Well grubbed, old mole!” (Marx 1978:606). Well grubbed, indeed. What faith in history! Is it even imaginable that such a philosophy of history could be detached from such an aspiration—or that an autonomous philosophy of history, whatever that might mean, could possibly emerge?

Koselleck’s own relation to the internationalist revolution as well can be heard, perhaps most clearly in the pessimism or disheartedness of his plea-full question: “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). Balibar as well cannot escape his (admirable) attachment to revolution. The closing lines are tell-tale: “civic and democratic insurrections, with a central communist component against ultra-individualism, also involving a ‘intellectual and moral reform’ of the common sense itself (as Gramsci explained), are probably not destructible. Call ‘revolution’ the indestructible? I would suggest that possibility.” (Balibar 2016:*24)

Simona Forti too 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) As Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak reminds us in “Global Marx,” the 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)

It is equally impossible, it seems, to escape the immediate political crises we face in thinking about the modern conception of revolution. One feels this powerfully in reading Koselleck’s essay, written in 1968: the brooding omnipresence of the bloody anti-colonial struggles and civil wars—“From Greece to Vietnam and Korea, from Hungary to Algeria to the Congo, from the Near East to Cuba and again to Vietnam” (Koselleck 2004:56)—as well as the nuclear arms race and the Cold War, so present by his references to “the contemporary nuclear stalemate” (Koselleck 2004:57), overshadow the discussion of contemporary conceptions of revolution.

Now, none of this is to deny the brilliance of the insights in these texts. The kernels of superb ideas are everywhere. The texts are gems.

Take, for instance, Etienne Balibar’s discussion of the Eurocentrism of the modern conception of revolution, and the contrast between notions of citizenship embedded in the concept of revolution and of the colonial subject embedded in the notion of uprising or insurgency shape our understanding of the terms. The revolution relates to uprisings in the 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). Koselleck develops a different, but equally brilliant contrast between the modern 16th and 17th century conception of revolution and the earlier Middle Ages uses of terms “from uprising and revolt to riot, insurrection, and rebellion, and on to Zweiung, internal and civil war” (Koselleck 2004:47). These latter are connected to a different form of struggle, one that is 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).

Or take Simona Forti’s powerful argument, against the singular collective experience that produces a concept of revolution, for a multiplicity of revolutionary spaces. Drawing on Arendtian strands—as opposed to the theological critique of Schmitt or even Strauss—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). Or Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s powerful intervention in “Global Marx,” drawing on her “thirty years of work in a backward district of West Bengal,” and inviting 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)

Or take the development of the relationship between revolution and civil war—which is so deeply provocative. Koselleck makes the point that the contrast between the two helped define revolutions in the Enlightenment period. It was the différence between the religious wars and bloody civil wars on the one hand, and the more noble Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England on the other hand, that gave meaning to the term revolution. Civil war “acquired the meaning of a senseless circling upon itself, with respect to which Revolution sought to open up a new vista” (Koselleck 2004:49). With Balibar—and perhaps with Foucault—I sense a closer imbrication of the two. For Balibar, at least, “a broad model of ‘civil war’ is bound to remain central” to the idea of revolution (Balibar 2016:*9). Foucault looms large here, with his focus on civil war as a matrix of social relations; though I wonder, in the end, how exactly that actually maps onto revolution(s).

Or go back to Koselleck’s original etymological elaboration about ancient concepts of revolution—of the cyclical returning to the point of origin, of the astronomical cycle of the stars, of 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). Or Koselleck’s argument 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). The final moment of modernity, as Forti writes, is “when, to the idea of political revolution is added that of social revolution” (Forti 2017).


No, this is not to take anything away from these brilliant texts that raise such provocative questions and push us to interrogate also those other twin terms that so frequently accompany the revolution. Counter-revolution. Ultra-revolution. Permanent Revolution (Balibar 2016:*10-11; Forti 2017; Spivak 2017). But in the end, it feels, we are no closer to resolution on that central puzzle or paradox.

Where do we place ourselves, then, you may ask? Where do you place yourself? Revolution, the “indestructible”? Perhaps, but only if we invest in that notion more than words alone? And what does that then mean? If it is true, as Koselleck’s last line suggests—that “in politics, words and their usage are more important than any other weapon” (Koselleck, 2004:57)—are we not, then, in a fix?

Of course, we know the place of rhetoric in politics, since Aristotle at least and surely today in these dark times of “fake news” and “lying media.” We hardly need to be reminded of the place of words and their usage. And we ourselves have always known the role of interpretation—infinite interpretation, in fact, interpretation of interpretation. Recall from last year’s Nietzsche 13/13:

“There is never, if you like, an interpretandum that is not already interpretans, so that it is as much a relationship of violence as of elucidation that is established in interpretation. Indeed interpretation does not clarify a matter to be interpreted, which offers itself passively; it can only seize, and violently, an already-present interpretation, which it must overthrow, upset, shatter with the blows of a hammer.” (Foucault 1964:275)

But if all action is interpretation, where does that leave us in the study of revolution? How, in Forti’s words, will we ever figure out “what is to be saved from revolutionary experiences, what is good in them to keep with us today”? (Forti 2017) What then is to be saved?


Perhaps, instead of saving anything, perhaps we should turn instead to studying, investigating, exploring the bastards of history, the illegitimate children of the revolution, the failures. The miscarriages. The events that did not make history.

Revolution 13/13. That was our original plan, Jesús Velasco and I. We marshaled thirteen of them, in fact—from the French and American Revolutions of course, and naturally, 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 of the historians, perhaps. The historians who have spoiled revolution for us in conceptualizing it, in historicizing it, in somehow raising it above all its illegitimate children—resistance, revolt, insurgency, disobedience, hacktivism, standing ground. Those peripheral, those ancillary, those sometimes aborted struggles for social change.

Well, no. In the end, it is to those bastards that we plan to dedicate the next 13 sessions—but we could not do it without, first, theorizing and rethinking the modern concept of revolution. And returning to these amazing texts.

So welcome to our first installment of Uprising 13/13!


Etienne Balibar, “The Idea of Revolution: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” Keynote Lecture, International Society for Intellectual History Conference: “Rethinking Europe in Intellectual History,” University of Crete, Rethymnon, 3 May 2016; revised with some changes and a new conclusion on May 6 at the MEGARON Lecture Hall in Athens, as part of the “Birkbeck in Athens Lectures in Critical and Cultural Theory.” Available at

Simona Forti, The Modern Concept of Revolution, September 11, 2017, available at

Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Marx, Freud” (1964)

Reinhardt Koselleck, “Historical Criteria of the Modern Concept of Revolution,” [1968] in Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (Columbia University Press, 2004).

Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte [1851-52], in The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd edition, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978), p. 594-617.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Global Marx, September 12, 2017, available at