• Origins and Early Transformation

    Ideas of abrupt, radical change of political order and even “constitutions” understood in the structural empirical sense, have existed since the Greeks and specifically Aristotle. These can be identified with our concept of revolution only at the cost of serious anachronism. The etymological term “revolution” has emerged independently from a non-political Latin usage (revolvere, revolotus, revolutio). It was this concept that was eventually applied to the cyclical movement of astronomical entities, most famously in the 1543 De revolutionibus orbium coelestium of Copernicus. Political usage was apparently earlier[1], but the first important political turn occurred when the cyclical, astronomical concept was applied in the English struggles of the 17th Century. Thus the Glorious Revolution was understood as a return to a previous age and previous institutions of English freedom, the “historical constitution”. This was the primary meaning in France as well in the 18th century, though a secondary meaning of extraordinary, violent changes in public affairs existed as well.[2] But the astronomical meaning was still dominant to an Edmund Burke who understood and defended even the American revolution according to this concept. [3] The second important transformation occurred when the American and French revolutionaries adopted the telos of a novus ordo seclorum (a new order of the world), implying the replacement of cyclical by linear time, and an idea of revolution aiming at an entirely new, completely unprecedented historical constellation.[4] Just as the secular order itself, the new concept of revolution has been interpreted as belonging to political theology, with Christian or Judeo-Christian eschatological hopes transferred, or brought back to immanent, historical temporality.[5] While the issue cannot be decided here, it may be conceded to Blumenberg[6] that revolutionary visions of progress and transcendent eschatological expectations did not have the identical structure. Nevertheless revolutionary ideas of completely free or just, or virtuous, or solidarity societies certainly sought like theology to answer the question of “meaning” in history, and drew not only on the vocabulary of religion but counted on the religious sensibilities of their addressees. It is an entirely separate question, whether a mythological dimension of concepts of revolution really did serve the normative goals of freedom, justice and solidarity. Major traditions in political thought, as well as analysts using legal, economic, and hermeneutic concepts of revolution have all addressed this question that was beyond the scope of mere political theology.

    Different Theories and Concepts

    As Hannah Arendt noted, and sought to remedy, the preponderant source of theoretical reflection on revolution focused on the French rather than the American experience. This is amazingly enough still true of American social science. Marxism was no exception, as Francois Furet among others have demonstrated.[7] Yet Marx has sought to extend his conception to all of human history. The Marxian concept had both system and action theoretical, as well as structural and ideological levels. First and foremost (for Marx himself) revolution was the radical and even cataclysmic replacement of one socio-economic system by another, a play of impersonal structures like forces and relations of production. Secondly it was the result of the struggle of classes with a previously subaltern class (not necessarily the most oppressed one) achieving its dominance and carrying out the transformation of society.[8] This step was generally understood in terms of dictatorship, a term used for a more permanent “transitional” state of affairs inaugurating a new order, as against the classical sense of a temporary order aiming to protect and restore a previous one. Finally, Marx used a construct inherited from Sieyes, according to which on the ideological level revolution entails one class representing its particular interests as universal. Here however past revolutions and the future one had significant differences. The proletarian revolution would not be based on particular interests, and the goals of the working class based on radical exclusion and radical needs would be truly universal. Thus, while the bourgeois revolution needed to theatrically cloak its actions in the costumes of previous revolutions, the proletarian revolution would “gain its poetry” only from the future.[9] Georg Lukács relied on this construct to claim in a Hegelian construct that the proletariat was the identical revolutionary subject of history, no longer relying on “false consciousness”. The history of Marxism hardly fulfilled these expectations. Its revolutionary versions without exception have come to be linked to vanguard parties, that substituted their own will and indeed dictatorship for that of the proletariat that they purported to represent. In a variety of forms it was Lenin and Trotsky who justified these moves, giving the Marxian tradition of revolutionary thought an elite, substitutionist and authoritarian character already noted by Bakunin, in the case of Marx. Meanwhile, in democratic versions of Marxism (Social Democracy and Euro-communism) the concept of revolution became increasingly metaphorical or was even replaced by “evolution”[10]– a shift already indicated by the late Engels[11] who focused on peaceful, non-insurrectionary means of achieving socialist goals. That move represented an abandonment of the model of the French revolution, without as yet providing a full theoretical explanation.

    It was Tocqueville who among many distinguished French contemporaries provided the most radical re-interpretation of the French Revolution.[12] Instead of seeing it as fundamentally rupture, he conceptualized the results as a dramatic continuation and acceleration of the trends of the old regime. The old regime has already created a bureaucratic state structure capable of surveying, controlling, rationalizing social life, eliminating more or less successfully societal forms of corporate independence and self government. Its aristocratic self definition and various forms of resistance by established orders and bodies did not allow the completion of this process, and it was “the Revolution” that swept away the limitation as with old broom, as Marx would say in passages apparently “more Tocquevillian than Marxist” (Furet 978 referring to the 18th Brumaire and Civil Wars in France). Tocqueville however resolutely focused on state theory, and not on economic mode of production, and thus, unlike Marx who considered the state to be a superstructure, he pronounced revolution as state strengthening. It is this model of analysis that was confirmed and generalized by Theda Skocpol who relied also on concepts of Otto Hintze to tress the international dimensions of the origin of revolutionary situations.[13] Neglecting the American case, Skocpol managed to show how and why all the great revolutions, the French, the Russian and the Chinese, and finally the Islamic had a state strengthening logic precisely because in their initial phase they destabilized and disorganized state organizations making the polity vulnerable to external intervention. Thus the anti statist intentions of revolutionaries, visible in a text like Lenin’s “State and Revolution” must be taken much less seriously than the dictatorial outcomes.

    If anything, the Tocquevillian and neo Tocquevillian analysis is more structural and system oriented than that of Marx, but both missed an analysis of the actual revolutionary experience stressed by authors such as Michelet. Authors like Arendt and Claude Lefort have done much to stress the experience of public freedom and public happiness in revolutions and even the emergence of institutions like the famous councils dedicated to institutionalizing the initial experience. These analyses are however also neo Tocquevillian in the sense that despite the American case they register the authoritarian propensities of at the very least the revolutionary ideology. Thus they see revolution ultimately as two phenomena: the origin of modern democratic politics as well as the post democratic turn to dictatorship or even totalitarianism. In spite of their intentions, and their affinity for the actual experience of liberation and participation in revolution, Arendt and Lefort are able to show the dominance of the democratic strain only in exceptional cases, the successful American case of 1776 and the failed Hungarian one 180 years later. In Arendt’s theory the problem is then linked up with the analysis of two dimensions of revolution: “liberation” and “constitution”. The first phase, whether led by popular movements or elites is often successful. The second phase however, the constitution of freedom seems to repeatedly fail because of the difficulty of generating an organized pouvoir constituant with sufficient general authority to produce a constitutionalist constitution. In Lefort’s version democratic revolutions do institute democracy by emptying the space of symbolic power, and fighting to keep it empty against ever new claimants. The paradox however is that their ideology, more populist than democratic, drives revolutionaries themselves to claim full sovereignty in the name of the genuine people who have to be “extracted” form the empirical population. This is the ideologically based logic that drives revolution to dictatorship and even terror. What Lefort leaves open is whether the learning he sought to facilitate would be compatible with revolutionary understanding of fundamental change.[14]

    Analytical Dimensions of Concept

    The number of conceptions in contemporary social thought and social science is vast and the results can be summed up only in a highly typological treatment that yields several analytical dimensions of the concept of revolution, each stressed by some interpreters.[15]

    The structural systemic concept of revolution still has advocates, and it involves a stress on the level of transformation. Since there are always empirical continuities, this conception requires focus on an organizational center, or a principle of identity. Relations of production as in Marxism are one candidate, but there are alternatives such as S. Eisenstadt’s stress on the symbolic or ”sacred” core of societies. Of course it is possible to disagree on what is essential in a given context, and on the time dimension required to bring about a particular type of transformation. The structural concept can be improved when combined with other notions linked to event, experience, as well as legal notions with the proviso that combinations are possible that make it uncertain if a revolution occurred even if great structural transformation took place.

    The main political model is event centered[16], and from Trotsky to Tilly[17] has focused on the pluralization of sovereignty among antagonistic forces that fight for mastery.[18] Such a struggle indicates a revolutionary situation, but only the achievement of full sovereignty by a new claimant signifies a revolutionary outcome. Accordingly, silent revolutions involving great change (however defined) produce revolutionary outcome without revolutionary situation, while civil wars may imply a revolutionary situation without revolutionary outcome. The old elites may still win, or all contending groups may fail leading to state collapse. Even coups can be integrated in this conception, if we understand them as the combination of situation, and low degree of change. A different, equally plausible version is in Goldstone who uses a three part framework based on state breakdown, competition among political forces and building new institutions, and helpfully argues both that the sequence between the first and the second can be reversed, and that each of the moments may exist alone in which case you have secession (state breakdown); coup (competition among forces) and elite reform (institution building).[19]

    While the political model indicates rupture, the definitional threshold for this (civil war) is rather high. The role of popular movements that cannot exercise sovereign control over military forces is thereby unjustifiably diminished. Here the legal concept of Kelsen according to which a revolution takes place when a system is altered (should be “replaced”) according to other rules than its own rules of change. This conception, identifying coups and revolutions, leaves open (if any illegality is not to be understood as a revolution) the level of change that should minimally count. A proposal by Janos Kis, that stresses continuity and rupture in two dimensions, legality and legitimacy, allows both a distinction from coups, as well as other modalities of change beyond the dichotomy of reform and revolution.[20]

    Finally, all structural, political and even legal concepts tend to neglect the experience of actors, and the symbolic forms they use to construe their actors. It is the writings of historians and journalists that we have the most access to the revolutionary experience of actors stressed by Arendt and Lefort. The public exhilaration, and learning experiences, even the grass roots organizational efforts of the participants are still uncannily similar in modern revolutions to the classical forerunners. Accordingly, until recently, the revolutionary experience has been often conceptualized in terms – personalities and institutions – derived from earlier revolutions, mainly the French and the Russian. Revolution was still seen as a singular and international phenomenon rather than plural and local. In this sense the hermeneutic problem stressed by Marx, and even the theatricality of the revolutionary discourse hardly turned out to be a matter of the past.[21] But, with the appearance one the one hand of non western revolutions carried out by religious movements since Iran in 1979, on the other, both earlier and later, of post-revolutionary concepts and scenarios, the classical tradition is finally rejected as either Western or as invariably authoritarian.

    Post Revolution?

    While it depends on the type of discourse and ideology what normative modality we assign to revolution, on the whole in the Western secular tradition a positive evaluation has been dominant. Revolution has still a far better sound than “counter revolution”, so that even Joseph de Maistre produced the concept of “contrary revolution” to indicate a non revolutionary form of the reversal of revolutionary results. Of course this indicated a rejection of revolution in any form, a perspective historically shared by all conservatives and some liberals. Recently, hostility to revolution as a model of change has spread to the left side of the political spectrum. Several factors are responsible. First chronologically was the critique of “totalitarianism” on the French left, that involved also the linking of the criticized form of regime to revolutionary process including the French Revolution itself. This was the initially the work of Furet[22], but a highly influential school of historians followed him, and so did, if with some ambivalence, philosophers and political thinkers like Lefort[23] (who influenced Furet), Rosanvallon and Gauchet.[24] Of course the Russian Revolution was widely criticized before, but the extension of the same type of critique to the whole revolutionary tradition was far more significant for the subsequent history of the concept. Even more important was the post Marxist and post revolutionary turn of intellectuals originally within the Marxist tradition, in Central Europe, like Mylnar, Kuron, Michnik, Vajda, Kis and Bencze. Here radical transformation was conceived beyond the option of reform and revolution, both already tried and failed in Central Europe. “Taught by history, we suspect” – wrote Adam Michnik in 1985 in Prison – “that using force to storm the existing Bastilles we shall unwittingly build new ones.”[25] A strategy linked to the concept of pluralistic civil society was the alternative, and revolution had to be re-qualified as self-limiting, velvet, peaceful or negotiated, all terms inconsistent with aspects of the historical conception and tradition. Though for different reasons, and different types of learning experiences, the same post revolutionary discourse arrived in Southern Europe, Latin America and South Africa as well. In all these contexts negotiated transitions involving regime transformation became for a time at least the preferred model of radical change, whether or not significant mass movements played key roles in the process. Revolutionary discourse admittedly survived everywhere, but tended to become a marginal phenomenon. For a while it was disgruntled forces on the right in Central Europe, and the Left in South Africa represented the position that negotiated transitions did and could not go far enough. Their calls for a “second revolution” were however initially disregarded by those they tried to address. Meanwhile, the post revolutionary alternative penetrated ever new contexts, like civil society initiatives in Nepal and the Green movement of Iran. It seemed like the long epoch of modernity understood as in terms of revolutionary origins was over.

    Return of Revolution?

    The Arab Spring has taught us that we have said good-bye to revolution too soon.[26] In terms of several the dimensions of the concept, the political, the legal, and the experiential the political processes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and finally Syria are revolutions. At the very least they represent revolutionary situations some of which already had revolutionary outcomes even if the Arendtian dimension of new constitutions are still missing.[27] While there is still debate about the systemic dimension of change as well, and there is no linkage to the Western revolutionary tradition, the absence of post revolutionary discourse is even more striking. The actors have no difficulty in describing their acts as a revolution, themselves as revolutionaries, even if they sometimes seek to deny previous revolutions the same nomenclature (e.g. to Egypt in 1952).[28] More important is the fact that the critique of revolution in post revolutionary discourse has definite applicability in the new context. While the work of “liberation” has had a mass character, at least in significant part, the taking of power by power, namely by old or new elites, with or without outside intervention, has been key to turning revolutionary situations into revolutionary outcomes. While it is often asked e.g. whether the break in Egypt was a coup or a revolution, activists and intellectuals have long realized that it is both. This in the post revolutionary perspective belongs to the essence of revolutionary phenomenon, and the point is also confirmed by neo Tocquevillian (Skocpol) and rational choice (Tilly) analyses in social science, as well as recent theories of populism (Laclau[29]), in the last case in an affirmative manner. Critics within the revolutions are of course not in the position to renounce the context they themselves politically presuppose, where they have made significant contributions. But they find themselves calling for institutional innovations derived from the recent history of post revolution, like non-violence, multi stage constitution making, comprehensive negotiations, consensus, and ending internal friend and enemy relations. Whether these innovations can be transplanted in the midst of revolutionary coups remains still an open question. Tunisia speaks for the possibility, and so far Egypt and Syria speak against it.


    [1]But the ascription of the concept even in its cyclical form to Aristotle or Polybius is certainly anachronistic. See J. A. Goldstone “revolution, theories of” in The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Poltical Thought

    [2]M. Ozouf “Revolution” in Ozouf and Furet The Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution (Cambridge, Mass, 1989)

    [3]Arendt On Revolution (New York, 1989)

    [4]pace Goldstone, this innovation was American, not French. The great seal of the U.S. with these words, referring to 1776, dates from 1782. See Arendt On Revolution; Ozouf op.cit.

    [5]Loewith Meaning in History (Chicago, 1949)

    [6]The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (Cambridge, 1985)

    [7]see Furet “Marx” in The Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution

    [8]Kiernan “Revolution” in A Dictionary of Marxist Thought (Oxford, 1983)

    [9]See the famous 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New York, 2008)

    [10]E. Bernstein Evolutionary Socialism (New York, 1961)

    [11]See his Introduction to Marx The Class Struggles in France (New York, 1964)

    [12]The Old Regime and the French Revolution (New York, 1955)

    [13]The State and Social Revolutions (Cambridge, 1979)

    [14]Arato “Lefort, the Philosopher of 1989” in Constellations (2012) 19 # 1

    [15]Arato Civil Society, Constitution and Legitimacy (Lanham, Maryland, 2000) ch. 3

    [16]To Ozouf it was the revolution itself that gave us our modern notion of “events”. That may go too far, but the role of event and staging in the French Revolution was nothing less than remarkable.

    [17]From Mobilization to Revolution (Reading, Mass. 1978)



    [20]“Between Revolution and Reform” Constellations (1995) v. I # 3

    [21]See Ozouf “Revolution” 810ff; and 816ff

    [22]Interpreting the French Revolution (Cambridge, 1981); also see his essays in A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution

    [23]Democracy and Political Theory (Minneapolis,1988)

    [24]See Rosanvallon La demokratie inachevee (Paris, 2000); Gauchet Le revolution des pouvoirs (Paris, 1995)

    [25]Adam Michnik, Letters from Prison and Other Essays (Berkeley, 1985), 86.

    [26]For this section I draw on Arato and Tombus “Learning from Success, Learning From Failure: South Africa, Hungary, Turkey and Egypt” forthcoming in Philosophy and Social Criticism

    [27]Since completing the first draft, a new Egyptian constitution has been submitted to a referendum, where it is in the process of being ratified. It is very doubtful that this constituion, unless re-negotiated will constitute any stable and especially free institutions.

    [28]“Egyptian Nasserists condemn 6 April founder’s anti-1952 Revolution stance” AlAhram July 21, 2012

    [29]On Populist Reason (London, 2005). For a critique see my “Political Theology and Populism” forthcoming in Social Research

    The author:
    Professor Arato is the Dorothy Hart Hirshon Professor in Political and Social Theory, has taught at Ecole des hautes etudes, and Sciences Po in Paris, and the Central European University in Budapest, had a Fulbright teaching grant to Montevideo in 1991, and was Distinguished Fulbright Professor at the Goethe University in Frankfurt/M,Germany.
 Professor Arato has served as a consultant for the Hungarian Parliament on constitutional issues: 1996-1997, and as U.S. State Department Democracy Lecturer and Consultant (on Constitutional issues) Nepal 2007. He has been re-appointed by the State Department in the same capacity for Zimbabwe, during November of 2010 where he had discussions with civil society activists and political leaders in charge of the constitution making process. He was invited Professor at the College de France, Spring 2012. Go to his profile on The New School’s website.



Please consider giving a tax-free donation to Reset this year

Any amount will help show your support for our activities

In Europe and elsewhere
(Reset DOC)

In the US
(Reset Dialogues)