Some Initial Thoughts on the Concept of Revolution: A Review of Specters of Revolt

For the last little bit of time I have been working through some thoughts on the concept of revolution. These are still very much in formation, and will probably be the subject of at least part of a book I plan on working on starting this fall. In doing research for the text I came across a text called Specters of Revolt, by Richard Gilman-Opalsky, and had some thoughts that seemed worth sharing, even as nothing more than an opening salvo in this discussion.


Before diving into the critiques I have of the text I want to discuss the concept of critique itself. There is a tendency for intellectuals, theorists, academics, and people engaged in political theory to approach critique as a sort of eliminationism. By this I mean that critique has become a sort of competition, with critique itself being portrayed as some sort of invalidation of a certain body of thought. This is an absurd view.

On an epistemic level we have to think through what reading, and by extension critique, really is. For us to make the argument that there is a right reading of a text, a correct reading, we have to make a series of highly problematic assumptions. We would need to assume that the text always remains the same in all moments, that it is engaged ahistorically by ahistorical readers that are somehow immune to the dynamics of whatever present they occupy in any given moment. We would also need to assume that all readers are the same; if there is to be a singular right way to read a text there would need to be a common epistemic basis for that reading that would have to be rigidly the same. We would also need to assume that words have objective meanings, and that we all engage with and understand language in exactly the same way. In other words, to claim that there is a right or correct reading of a text is to also assert an entire universe grounded in sameness and determinism.

I want to take a different view, one in which the correctness of reading and concept is secondary, one in which we can dispense with the arrogant assumptions of the true and universal. This view derives from discussions of the act of writing and reading that we will find in Archive Fever, by Derrida, or The Infinite Conversation, by Blanchot. In these texts the act of writing is portrayed as an act. By this I mean that writing is viewed as an event which has contingent effects in particular moments, rather than as the production of a static object that would exist outside of history. The text itself exists in a static, archival, form, which marks the product of a particular series of interpretive moments recorded by a writer. The reader, though, does not enter the text in the same way as the writer, and the writer will not enter the text the same way when they become editor or reader themselves. We encounter text, we engage with it. The text converges with the particularity of our existences and understandings to generate some sort of conceptual outcome.

As such, the concept of critique, for it to be useful, needs to occur in a way that centers around the usefulness of ideas and the theoretical space opened by a specific discourse. As Deleuze writes in his text on Nietzsche:

“Critique is not a re-action of re-sentiment but the active expression of an active mode of existence; attack and not revenge, the natural aggression of a way of being, the divine wickedness without which perfection could not be imagined” (3).

The act of critique is an act of opening, of challenging the singlarity of an understanding to create the possibility of conceptual movement, conceptual reformation, the possibility of presenting the concept in a different light, in a different context, with different results. Therefore, the primary question of critique is not whether we destroy the text we are analyzing; this understanding relies on the assumptions outlined above. Rather, critique functions as an act of destruction and appropriation, a process of borrowing ideas, utilizing theoretical movements, and functionally taking what is useful in the process of attempting to create a series of conceptual possibilities. It is a form of thought that very much exists within life, in all of its chaotic particularity, and in the service of launching attacks to eliminate impediments to the possibilities of that existence. It is revolt.

The existence of critique as revolt, as an opening of possibilities without some prescribed moment of reconcretization (some end of revolt), becomes a core concept in the thoughts I am recording here. We see a similar dynamic play itself out through this text, where the tendencies toward definitionalism and certainty, of concretizing objects of thought and presenting them as analogous to the world, collide with the chaotic contingency of any given moment. In this instance the object of analysis is the concept of revolution, the attempt to define the concept, and the problems latent in that attempt. But, as we will see, it is the framing of the question itself that generates a certain type of problematic in the text, a problematic that points not to issues in the text, but to issues in the entire conceptualization of what revolution is, and whether the category is even useful anymore (or ever was).

Setting the Stage

Initially I had picked this text up in order to explore the discussion of the concept of revolution contained within. As I stated above, this concept, as currently understood, functions as a form of sungularizing historicism. By this I mean that the concept of revolution is in itself something that is singular, and as such, a concept that posits a spatio-temporality with very specific characteristics. We can see this singularity in construction of the very concept itself through the medium of naming a historical moment. The strings of events that we term revolutions are often the result of some deeply complex, often misunderstood, motivations and historical dynamics that construct these events with specific contours. These contours do not spread across space equally, with conflict finding points of greater, lesser, or different concentrations and expressions.

The packaging of this complex series of historical events, which will never be replicated to the degree that our actions have effects that shape the future, points to two core problems with this formulation. Firstly, this reality of revolution, that it is a complex series of historical events summarized within the confines of a singular object, gives us some insight into the process of historicism and its role in the construction of ideology. Ideological constructs function, on a practical level, by taking their epistemic claims to universal truth and then utilizing a pseudo-analysis grounded in the ideological reflection in events, the aura of ideology in the event itself. In this construct there is an implicit assertion that two moves are possible; that moments can be subsumed into historical objects and that these historical objects are somehow comparable across time, even just as an expression of ideology. Without the concept of revolution forming the foundations of this singularization of complex events then conceptual universes, such as Leninism, that rely on this universalization of historical condition, this claim that strategy, for example, exists independent of the strategic context and functions based on this comparability of historical events.

This singularization of historical events mirrors all other processes of historicism, and in this way is not unique. Nor is it unique on the level of grouping a series of historically particular dynamics, freezing them, and reducing them down to their lowest common denominator, while asserting that the common denominator is a thing to begin with. In both of these ways the concept of revolution mirrors our coding of other events. We can take World War II as an example. It was a complex series of events, with highly localized dynamics, which were subsumed within a broader global power struggle, which was in itself inscribed with the urgencies of intervening in genocide. In no two places did the war manifest in the same ways, and in no two places were these events isolated from all other dynamics occurring during that time. So, while the category of World War II may be useful in the discussion of these events, allowing us to make sense of them, in itself the concept of World War II does not express the moments that are subsumed in that concept, it only expresses the contours of the concept that is used to organize these events, defining them by something outside of themselves.

In the coding of specific events as revolution there is a dual move being made. In this first move the events that comprise what will be termed “a revolution” will need to be grouped together under this category. This is where problems like historical revisionism arise, and why there are different Stalinist and Trotskyist histories of the Russian Revolution; there was disagreement over what events counted as part of the revolution and which were not. It is at this location in which rewritings of the coding of events, the determination of what is defined by the category, allows for these events to be coded ideologically, and often in ways that eliminate ethical complications, failures, and mistakes, reducing this “history” to another tool of propaganda and ideological distortion. Secondly, in performing this act of coding a series of events, now grouped under the heading of revolution, are separated from all other events. In this grouping of specific events into the categorical heading of revolution, often with these other events being considered “counter-revolutionary”, a sort of hermetically sealed grouping is created, with boundaries marking it as separate from its outside. This framing completely divorces any notion of “revolution” from its historical conditions of possibility, and constructs it as a specific historical object that can be understood as such. The second move is to then take this categorical definition of events, and exalt it as a specific object that is able to be understood in some sort of true way. It is only from here that one can be said to be studying revolutions, or that one can say that they understand some ahistorical truth about revolutions; all tankies rely on this construct.

These conditions of possibility, historical coding and exalting the category, not only form the foundations for “bad” understandings of revolution. Rather, they form the foundations for all understandings of the concept of revolution, and is implied simply by naming the events and then placing them at the center of political discourses, making the construct of revolution a core political question. It is really from this point that this text departs, that it finds its launching point. In some ways there is a sense in which this is a text that speaks from a specific location. It is a location marked by the activist norms of the 1990s (there are lots of references to the Zapatistas and the anti-globalization movement, and a lot of the same categories), and one in which the concept of revolution still comes to form a core political category. This is a tension that marks the entire text, one in which the critique of the concept of revolution almost crests into a core analysis of the concept itself, bringing the concept itself into the realm of critique, only to get trapped in its terms, turned backwards, and collapsing into paradox at numerous points. But, to see where these moments are able to be identified, we should step through the text, which is definitely worth a read for those interested in this concept specifically.

As with any text there are any number of threads that run through the narrative. In this case there is a narrative on the concept of revolution or revolt (for Opalsky revolts grow into revolutions), but also narratives centered around concepts like culture jamming (note the 1990s reference point), concepts of notions of the future, concepts of desire, notions of struggle and conflict without struggle, as well as any of a number of small ruminations on specific thinkers or texts, all of which are interesting. As with any complex text there is always a bit of arificiality in attempting to separate one thread from the others, to break it away from its weaving into other threads, but that is exactly what we will be doing here. These other narratives, whether they focus on concepts of desire or notions of the future, are all departing from a concept of revolution, which Opalsky attempts to challenge and render more fluid without dispensing with the idea. This tension, between recognizing issues with the concept but not dispensing with it, permeates the entire text, and sets epistemic conditions that create problems as the text proceeds.

Revolution: The Formation of a Concept

A core point in the text, which emerges in the Introduction and carries through the forst couple of pieces, is that revolt exists as a subtext to history, an almost invisible force with its own ontological and epistemic structures; this is a significant claim. In embracing this claim we are directly arguing against the understanding of revolt as a formal category visible in the abstract, outside of history, as a legible force mobilized intentionally. If we think through the concept of revolution, or the notion of revolt, in relation to political activity, a clear assumption becomes clear; namely, the assumption that successful organizing is something that can be objectively managed, and that it always results in achieving some sort of mobilization of revolt. This understanding, which is core to much of the arrogance of political organizing culture, heavily relies on the idea that revolt is an object that can be understood and mobilized regardless of its relationship to events; a wholly despatialized, ahistorical understanding of revolt.

The problems that characterize this move, and this replicates throughout the text, becomes clear almost immediately however. In the very next conceptual move there is an injunction to determine or define what revolt can be, just to do so with more open categories than the deterministic lens inherited from Leninism. This conceptual-material fusionism, this claim that we can understand revolt in the conceptual, and that this will impact the material, prioritizes the categorization, making its definition imperative for the contextualization of the rest of the argument. In other words, revolt and revolution become objects of analysis in this narrative, rather than namings of events, and as such they must be set aside from history in the very act of their definition. One is not defining actual events named revolts, one is defining a category of revolt and then attemptoing to shape events based on this understanding, and as such, the revolt itself becomes removed from its particularity, and begins to exist only to the degree that events can be subsumed within the definition.

To illustrate this move we can look at the ways that the concept of desire is used in the Beyond Struggle essay. The concept of desire is mobilized in this piece to be a counter-point to the concept of struggle, with the injunction being that we should not struggle but act from desire. Let us look beyond the fact that one can desire struggle, or the ways in which this injunction ignores actual hardships, risks, and stakes. Rather, here, I want to focus on the conceptual pre-conditions for this discussion to emerge to begin with. For us to make the claim that desire should become some fundamental motivating force of revolt we need to make two claims. The first claim is that something like desire or revolt can be made into conceptual objects without fundamentally destroying the dynamism that gives these concepts meaning. In naming these concepts as concepts, as conceptual constructions that persist over time, the material particularity of their manifestation as desire or conflict is erased and replaced with a staid and static definition of the concept. Secondly, we then need to posit that the construction of a narrative of conceptual connection between these terms not only speaks directly of the world (which, again, presumes a static world) but is also something that can directly manifest in the world in the terms of its conceptual construction. That is to say, that this architecture presumes that these static categories in themselves are manifested in the world in their static and ahistorical generalism, and that the movements of these concepts then come to define the world.

In another example, this time around pages 80-89, we can begin to see the impact of this sort of thinking. In this section there is a discussion of power as an organic material possibility latent in existence itself. This would imply that the term power, in the spirit of Foucault, is being used to name an active series of dynamics that cannot be subsumed in the term power. Now, if we were to take this position that open categories, like power, or categories that name activity, like revolt, are not able to be defined, and don't speak directly of the world, then the entire attempt here, to define a concept of revolution that does not have the same deficiencies as in the past, would completely collapse in the impossibility of defining actual acts grouped under headings of revolt or revolution. In this discussion of power the discourse itself begins with this clear discussion of the microscopic and organic manifestations of dynamics grouped under the term power, but this then immediately solidifies in the discussion of scale.. Gilman-Opalsky argues that, though capital operates in locality, it is actually “large”, to use his term, and requires revolt at the same scale.

OK, let's investigate this claim. To make the argument that capital operates at “large” scale is to make the argument that capital itself operates across space and time, giving it a body all of its own. This is clearly the attempt of capital, to construct a universe of meaning that operates as the condition of possibility for existence, but this is not something that we can speak of singularly if we want to discuss actions as something that has effects. If actions have effects, then any following moment is going to be directly the result of the dynamics of this present, and as such, no present moment ever repeats. These moments are also not singular across space, with different dynamics functioning within the same moment in different spaces. So, to say that capital is “large” is to say that the local actions that actually comprise economic activity are, in themselves, driven by something outside of themselves in a direct way that defines the actions in actuality. This does not mean, as I would claim, that capital is a structure of meaning imposed through policing, which would involve local decisions and actions. Rather, to claim this scale of capital is to argue that there is something that exceeds the moment materially, an actual transcendental force, that directly defines these acts as capital, and as separate from other “non-capital” acts.

In making this move capital ceases to be an attempt at organizing logistics and imposing limits on the possibilities of existence through police force, in which interventions are fundamentally bound up with this microscopicness, and begins to become a category that defines some actions that are grouped together across time and space, opposing some “large” scale “system” which is also devoid of locality or temporality. In doing so both capital and revolt are abstracted from their occurrence, from the time and space of the events coded in these ways, thrown into a conceptual comparison which is, in turn, then supposed to speak directly of reality; it is a strange, but very very common, conceptual construction when viewed through this lens. The centrality of the category does not fuse the concept of revolt with some dynamic structuring of theory in the midst of conflictual events. Rather, we experience the inverse, the wholesale obliteration of possibility in the static conceptualization of a singular categorical “system” which is meant to be confronted by some generalized revolt. In this arrangement, the world itself disappears and we enter into a whollly conceptual discourse on some idea of revolution against some idea of a “system”.

It is only from this disappearance of life that concepts like revolution, thought as a singular event, can be said to be understood in their entirety by some sort of privileged revolutionary subject, such as the technician in Leninism. So, even though the text itself later returns to a sort of molecularity, this baggage of the assertion of a conceptually singular capital, unified across time and space, leads Gilman-Opalsky to speak of the “micropolitical”, conflict which occurs in the time and space of actual activity, as a politics of failure due to the inability to defeat “systems”. In this claim the concept of “large”, namely non-particular and singular across time and space, is taken as a given category for all analysis, with all other analyses departing from different categories “failing”, due to not addressing a construct, the “system”, which is seen increasingly as an un-useful artifice. The imposition of this analytic framework also imposes an entire conceptual reality in which systems actually exist, in which there are things that are singular and persist in this form across time and space, which then asserts a conceptual reality in which singular concepts of revolution make sense. But, outside of that framing, which I would argue is impossible to actually support conceptually, this assertion of the massification of activity and the removal of the act from its time and space makes no sense. The result is a conceptual tautology, where the assertion of “large” systems necessitates the existence of “large” revolutions, which in turn presumes an entire organizational and ontological model rooted in massification and modernism.

Within the text there is an attempt to address this paradox, which is not unnoticed, around page 92. In this discussion the concept of culmination is raised, as some point in which there is a convergence between the micropolitical and the “large” mass scale of revolution, in this conceptualization. On the one hand, this approach does allow us to displace the question of the act onto the plane of effect, and thus onto the material plane. By placing the culmination of actions at the pinnacle of analysis, and rendering that culmination through the effects of actions, discourses around some essence of the act, or some true act, are eliminated in favor of a discourse that should be grounded in the moment. But, on the other hand, while this is occurring there is a countervailing tendency pulling in the other direction. At the moment that the point of culmination is placed at the center of the discourse on the political all particular acts are subsumed into this culmination, and the nuanced temporality and particular material conditions of the acts grouped into the category of a revolution is condensed into this singular moment of culmination. In other words, rather than seeing acts that exist in light of their particular time and space, the act is said to exist in this form, but only to the degree that it fulfills the condition of possibility of leading to a culmination. As such, the culmination then takes the place of the ahistorical object and becomes the point of orientation in which all action is judged, preserving the singularity of the point of focus, whether we call it culmination or revolution.

There are many other places where these dynamics emerge, but I think this demonstrates the point. Core to this text is a venture that I see frequently in thinkers both of this era, and also within academia. There is a tendency within that world to want to speak of the political within the terms common to those discourses, which were heavily influenced by Leninist reductionism and the simplicity of categorical thinking, while problematizing the limitations of the original articulations of these categories. What results, however, is a discourse in which categories become more open, but also migrate into the center of all narratives, as a condition of possibility for all other thought around the subject. These dynamics typified the New Left, and informed its inability to break from authoritarianism, as well as the more activist left of the late 1990s and early 2000s, which often operated based on simplistic and absolutist categories, often collapsing into purism discourses. What is often not embraced, however, is the impossibility of these discourses, regardless of how nuanced the terms, actually speaking of life, in its temporal and spatial nuances and particularities. There is a hesitancy to speak of philosophy itself, and its impossibility, and as a result, there is often a tendency to adopt terms which imply epistemic and ontological frameworks that undermine the point that one is trying to make. In this case Gilman-Opalsky does a wonderful job of problematizing the very ontology of the concept of revolution, only to then reconstruct some concept of a politically singular moment and call it something else. We can do better than this.

Writing the Indiscernible

This is the section of an essay where I am supposed to outline some new amazing concept that is supposed to solve all of our conceptual problems. I don't have anything like that for you all, and in some ways the very structure of that type of articulation prevents the critique that is being leveraged here; to imply some singular solution is to assert the singularity of the problem which is to assert the singularity of circumstance. On some level we need to abandon the concept of the solution in its entirety, rendering some sort of recommendation counter-productive here.

The real difficulty, and this is the element of this discussion that I am working through currently, and have been working through for a while, is how one speaks possibility, conflict, contingency, and so on. Philosophy in many ways is trapped by the contours of concepts themselves. By this I do not mean that there are deficiencies in specific concepts. Rather, that the entire construction of the concept implies a universe in which singular terms can name singular ideas which wholly and completely express singular categories of objects that are all thought to be the same. Marx discusses this in Chapter 1 of Capital, where he discusses commodities, but we can use a simpler example. When we name something, lets say capitalism for example, we are naming that thing singularly, as something that persists across time and space, and then naming things in relation to that concept. In the context of capitalism, which we discussed above, the term capitalism implies a singularity to the operations of capital. In taking this ontological lens on, one is subsequently eliminating the particular actions that are grouped under capitalism, as material moments, and replacing them with their reflection in this category, tying them to some commonality and not to the material particularity of the moment that occurs. As such, when we discuss resistance to capitalism, therefore, that discourse tends to focus on some asserted necessity of mass resistance, which then facilitates specific political categories and forms.

We have to admit that the revolutionary project, as conceived of in this singular form deriving from the American and French revolutions, has been an abject failure. There is a widely held perspective that revolutions lead to disaster and the mass death of political opponents, and there is every good reason to think that this is true. The end result of this perception is that political imagination is horrendously constrained. And, no, falling into genocide denial and apologetics, like the tankies have done, is not a way to solve this problem. Rather we have to completely rethink political action in the full light of the failures of revolution, and do so with a willingness to abandon the concept, and its notions of space and time, its asserted ontological universe, and its epistemic assertions.

What needs to be thought is a way to speak of action while undermining the singularity of the discourse at the moment of its articulation. It is a similar problem that arises when one attempts to discuss concepts of the self, or notions of social dynamics, or the movement of atoms. It is an attempt to speak that which resist being spoken, to discuss the unleashing of possibilities without defining those possibilities, to embrace a politics in which the future remains open, and in which we are not attempting to impose definitions of life.

This task is something I am very much working through. Some elements of working through this can be seen in Army of Ghosts, but there is a lot of work to do. I very likely have an upcoming book project for this summer, focused on some reflections from the uprising and what that can teach us about the deficiencies of activism. But, once that project is complete this is the next task, to take this critique, expand it, and build a narrative around attempting to map some openings, without mapping out the paths to and from those openings.