Simona Forti | The Modern Concept of Revolution

By Simona Forti

Instead of asking myself, reformulating the famous title of a chapter in On Revolution[1], which are the lost treasures of the Modern Revolutionary Tradition, I will start from the question: “Which are, if there are, the hidden treasures of the criticisms to the modern concept of revolution? Which are the conservative and anti-revolutionary refrains? How to distinguish them from the critical perspectives of a radical politics that sometimes shares their arguments, but moves instead from altogether different premises and towards altogether different objectives?”

These are the questions (immense, I know) that orient rather cursorily my brief intervention, which will not focus on the analysis of Marx’s text (it would be absurd, given the competence on Marx of the other participants at the table). I will instead start from some questions emerging from the text by Koselleck, a historian – so he is defined – perhaps not widely known among students in the US.

Reinhart Koselleck is maybe the most authoritative member of the school of the Begriffsgeschichte (Conceptual History).  Together with Otto Brunner and Werner Konze, he is the editor of that monumental Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland (Basic Concepts in History: A Historical Dictionary of Political and Social Language in Germany) which required 25 full years of gestation. The essay we are discussing today is therefore guided by the assumptions of the Conceptual History that structures the Lexikon. They suggest that between 1750 and 1850, in Europe, in France and especially in Germany, a radical reorientation occurs of all the fundamental historical concepts (whose genealogy the Lexikon aims to reconstruct). The hundred years separating those two dates represent for the authors, and for Koselleck in particular, the Sattelzeit (saddle time, or threshold time, or watershed epoch): the threshold that ushers in modernity. Obviously the thesis is trenchant and rather controversial, and has raised many polemics.

According to Koselleck, freedom, democracy, history, revolution – the terms that have accompanied the thousand-years-old social and political experience of the West – in modernity change dramatically their meaning. These concepts did not limit themselves to register changes. They generated change; they have been agents of social and political change for all intents and purposes.

Far from being merely a work of historical-genealogical reconstruction, Koselleck’s work is far more ambitious, and in my opinion it makes the author more a philosopher of history than a historian. For the thesis underlying the radical break between the modern and the pre-modern world is philosophical, more than historical. No concept better than “revolution” would reveal that “historical essence” of modernity that overturns the internal structure of the categories having to do with human praxis. This is because – this is the core of Koselleck’s discussion – the “essence” of the modern is inaugurated by a new conception of time: a temporality that redesigns both the meaning of experience and the “horizon of expectations” of the human animals. In modernity a perspective centered towards the future bursts through, which razes to the ground the meaning of history as a repository of examples and emblematic experiences. In a word, it shatters the idea of history as magistra vitae.

Beginning with the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, Koselleck tells us, the term revolution completely redesigns its content. For almost two thousand years, revolution referred to Anakyklosis, the cyclical theory of political forms, according to which constitutions come in succession, analogously to the cyclical movement of nature and the cosmos. Think of Aristotle and Polybius, who rendered paradigmatic that “cyclical idea” according to which only a limited number of constitutions, of political forms, would alternate through time. Even the exception of civil wars was neutralized, because internal to a force that would in any case return within the ranks of the order of the cosmos. Revolution, Koselleck continues, now surges, beginning with the period of the French Revolution, to a “transhistorical” and “metahistorical” category. It confers meaning and value to the events, according to the exclusive meter of the final realization, on the basis of their linking into a process/progress that leads to a final goal. Detached from reference to nature and the order of the cosmos, the idea of revolution becomes a “collective singular”, an abstract and universal category, within which the plurality of events, of humans and their goals is subsumed and annihilated. An impulse, this towards abstraction and universalization, that receives the final and decisive push when to the idea of political revolution is added that of social revolution. It is at this point that the idea of revolution becomes overwhelming and all embracing[2].

Now what I want to bring to your attention is the kind of criticism that Koselleck levels at the modern revolutionary spirit. Hidden below the neutral and poised tone of a study in the history of concepts, we glimpse a modality of criticism that we can ascribe to a very specific strand in the critique of modernity. It is the conviction, never expressed explicitly by the author, that inherent to modern revolutions and their aspiration to social equality is not only a totalizing, but also a totalitarian tendency. It is precisely the “progressive” character of the project aimed at the emancipation of social relationships from any kind of domination, which imprints onto the idea of change the pernicious mark of permanent revolution. The revolution becomes a constant state of exception, which in order to keep moving constantly needs to individuate and eliminate its enemies, especially internal enemies. 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 to guillotine to concentration camps.

Behind Reinhart Koselleck’s essay we glimpse the faces of those authors who, in part sharing the Heideggerian reading of Western metaphysics, link modernity to the process of secularization and put its revolutionary zeal on trial. It is a number of intellectuals differing deeply from one another, and sometimes they even disagree with each other about the “real start” of modernity. Let us think, first of all, of Carl Schmitt whose idea of Political Theology[3] — according to which political concepts are secularized theological concept– reverberates throughout the pages of Koselleck. Let us recall Leo Strauss, and his polemics with Schmitt.

Among the most intelligent and sophisticated of them, we must name at least Karl Löwith, who was one of Koselleck’s teachers. He really seems to be speaking through these pages. Let’s recall the pivotal idea put forward in Meaning in History[4]:  if the ancient world remained tethered to the idea of the limit, to the idea of a kosmos naturalistically bounded as the horizon of meaning of the mortals’ pragmata, the modern vision of history is instead characterized by that process of universalization and abstraction that overwhelms any distinction and sense of boundary. If inherent to the classical concept of historein was the meaning of each event in itself, modernity’s “future-centric” “future-oriented” revolution – sketched out by the philosophies of history of the 18th and 19th centuries – empties the single events of their own meaning, transferring it to the final sense, withheld from the experience – here and now – of the single individuals. Though in a philosophically refined way, Löwith so to say leads his student Koselleck to join the proponents of the so-called “theorem of secularization:” the modern philosophy of history, expressed by Hegel’s and Marx’s dialectic, and politically by the experience of the French and Bolshevik revolution, would be the result of the secularization of the Judeo-Christian eschatology, which considers the human events only in light of waiting and of redemption.

This is certainly not the place to dwell on the details of and the differences among these interpretations of the modern concept of revolution as secularization/immanentization of the Christian eschaton. The conclusions reached by these readings – with which Koselleck agrees in a more quiet and masked way – can be brutally summarized in the idea according to which modern revolution, with its linear and progressive temporality is deep down inhabited by a nihilistic drive. Whether this is because it is gnostic, idolatric with respect to real transcendence (as Vögelin and Gurian would have it[5]), whether it is because it is run through by the hybris of the absence of limit and the wish for the infinite and the absolute (Löwith), revolution, for these interpreters, hosts in its genetic code the mark of terror and totalitarianism. If the symbolic order of revolutionary project orients itself toward a sort of chiliastic, millenarian expectation, the anxiety for the future to be fulfilled brings with it cut heads and enemies of the people, counter-revolutionaries and masked saboteurs.

Now, this criticism (which one might call “theological”) of the idea of revolution, accusing it of being a masked eschatology, is so radical and all embracing that it leaves no margin to “falsification” or “negotiation.” Take it or leave it. It does not help us much in understanding what is to be saved from revolutionary experiences, what is good in them to keep with us today, though we might inflect it and name it differently. Moreover the influence of these criticisms, intelligent and symptomatic of a certain historical period as they were, seems to have fizzled together with the revolutionary impetus.

Some scholars emphasize the influence of Hannah Arendt behind Koselleck’s theses – as if she aligned perfectly with the proponents of the theorem of secularization. Her reading of the French Revolution, as an event that sacrifices freedom to necessity, her apparent aversion for the social question as a political problem, her idiosyncratic reading of Marx, partly justify the hypothesis of an affinity with that company and Koselleck. Undoubtedly, Hannah Arendt indicts the revolutionary logic that pretends to obey and enact the laws of history. And she denounces the dangerous transformation of the revolutionary subject into an amorphous mass that moves as one body, with one will. All these traits are for her dangerously tied to the dynamics of totalitarian movements.

Nonetheless for Hannah Arendt, as you know, there is not just one model of revolution, just one revolutionary tradition. Throughout modernity there have been revolutions, whose successes and failures have traced diverse paths for us. However arbitrary it may be from the historical point of view, her On revolution tells us something very different about modernity and its revolutionary heritage. The townships, where American revolutionaries could meet and participate, the soviets in 1905 and 1917 in Russia, die Räte in Post War I Germany, the revolutionary councils in 1956 Hungary: all these “public spaces” and “political bodies” are the evidence that modern revolutions have been the events of freedom. They were the breaks in history, through which the experience of freedom could manifest itself, in the highest form. “Freedom qua beginnings”, in fact, has been experienced by actors who, in concert, with one’s peer, have succeeded in founding a new political space, a space of horizontal participation, against any social, historical, and natural determinism.

Far from being simply one of the many followers of the thesis of secularization, Hannah Arendt – I believe – has actually been the inaugurator, not always recognized, much used, and often badly cited, of a minoritarian tradition with many ramifications; a minoritarian tradition, at least in the 20th century, which we might define libertarian but not liberal; a minoritarian tradition that drew energy from the criticisms to the classical Marxist model of revolution to launch a different way to think political and social change; a minoritarian and plural tradition that helps us to think revolution differently, and probably through different names, but without renouncing the potential for change that that idea brought forth.

Certainly the Arendtian idea of a power that remains one with freedom only as long as it remains plural and auroral, the attempt that is to tie together the force of beginnings – constituent power – with the permanence of a public space composed by webs of participation that are dispersed and dislocated – is not without contradictions and aporias. And yet it is maybe precisely this aporetic character, of which Arendt was well aware, that inspired some of the most interesting perspectives of a so-called radical politics. Though undertaking paths that are very different from one another, and none without stumbling stones – from Foucault to Butler – these perspectives all share the Arendtian intuition of freedom as an-archy, an-arché, as Reiner Schürmann would put it. Before being a political project this intuition is a specific vision of being, an ontology singular and plural at the same time. Remaining faithful to such ontology, without letting it paralyze us is the great challenge of today. Rephrasing Derrida, we could say “(almost) impossible yet necessary.”


[1] Hannah Arendt (1963)  On Revolution,  Penguin Books,  New York, NY.

[2] Obviously Koselleck is wondering, we are in the 1970s, what is the meaning of the social movements of that time. In what relationship of continuity or discontinuity they are to be placed with the revolutionary experiences of the past. The answer is ambiguous and altogether polemic.

[3] Carl Schmitt (1922) Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass 1985

[4] Karl Löwith (1949) Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History. University of Chicago Press, Chicago Il.

[5] E. Voegelin (1938) Political Religions, E. Mellen Press 1986; W. Gurian (1952), Bolshevism: An Introduction to Soviet Communism, University of Notre Dame Press.