The question of revolution is not romantic, it is unavoidable

By Justin Murphy, Politics & International Relations

Cross-posted here. Follow Justin on Twitter: @jmrphy

If I insist on the revolutionary position, it is not to insist on the dichotomy between revolution and reform. Most of us today will agree with Gorz that there exists a class of revolutionary reforms, at which point the relevant distinction becomes the distinction between revolutionary reforms and reformist reforms. Today, Nancy Fraser suggests the critical distinction is between “system-conforming” changes and “system-transforming” changes, but it seems to me that the long-standing theoretical and practical difficulty remains the same: which types of projects (individual or collective) effectively oppose capitalism and push society toward justice, and which types of projects (whether through mystification, co-optation, or defeat) merely improve capitalism for some at the price of renouncing the system-level opposition which would be the maximally true, coherent, and just position.

To my mind, this is the essence of the revolutionary position: To believe that the organisation of the world’s institutions are unjust, to see empirically that a key feature of these institutions is precisely that they offer particular groups small gains in return for their renunciation of system-level opposition, to therefore locate this precise mechanism as the essential and perhaps only mechanism which is able to maintain such massive worldwide system-level injustice, and finally to assume the theoretical and practical position to never renounce system-level opposition in exchange for any particular gain less than the absolute system-level transformations which are required for justice, no matter how relatively transformative such gains might be.1

Because of the almost primordial or, in any event, perennial quality of this tension and its unavoidable need for resolution in any theoretically defensible political project, I see no way that any political theory today can innocently elide the question of revolution. I do not say that any political theory today must be explicitly revolutionary in any specific sense. I say only that distinctions between “system-conforming” and “system-transforming” beg the crucial question which will always arise for those who agree to pursue system-transforming collective action: when the state, the market, and/or the thousands of institutions such as the university (defined by irrevocable cognitive and material allegiances to the state and market) offer us a particular “transformation” on condition that we demobilise just enough to not threaten the equilibrium of the institutional arrangement as such, should we accept that transformation or not?

That is, after individuals and groups choose “system-transforming” rather than “system-conforming” agendas, what are the conditions under which it is justified for them to demobilise their system-transformative demands in exchange for some political victory which improves the world but is less than what they see as a fully adequate transformation of the system? For this is the perennial dilemma with which all system-transforming political projects constantly struggle, and indeed it is this dilemma to which the very notion of an anti-capitalist (system-level) perspective is supposed to counter.

Finally, while I zealously affirm that any defensible revolutionary position will not only be anti-capitalist but also feminist, anti-racist, ecologically sustainable, and inclusive of many other human differences which “revolutionaries” have a long history of betraying, in no way do these inclusions obviate the question of revolution. Indeed, it is precisely because gender, race, and ecological as well as class struggles so urgently require truly system-level institutional transformations, that it is all the more important for us to maintain what is specific about the question of revolution and the meaning of the revolutionary position.

No matter how naively romantic the revolutionary position rings to our contemporary ears, it’s naiveté and romanticism is only a function of the merely contingent strength of the current status quo, and moreover our aversion to this seeming romanticism of the revolutionary position is itself merely the cognitive inheritance of a politics now more than ever defined by collaboration with injustice rather than resistance to it. Perhaps the meaning of the revolutionary position is indeed nothing more than an integral naiveté, but on the wager that real integrity to a truth is exactly the most emancipatory political force in the world. And perhaps the most dangerous romanticism existing today is the notion that humans have suddenly been absolved of having to decide whether they will negotiate with oppressive institutions or overthrow them.

  1. This phrasing is purposely agnostic about what exactly constitutes justice or what any ultimate institutional configuration should look like (or how this would be determined). This is because, for the moment, I am trying to sketch what is essential and specific about the revolutionary position as inclusively as possible with respect to any particular vision of political justice. Thus, the only essential premises with which one has to agree here are: 1) that there currently exist system-level injustices in the arrangement of institutions, and 2) that we can at least in principle admit the possibility of a globally just arrangement of institutions. One does not even have to agree that capitalism is the name of the currently unjust institutions, to see how a commitment to system-level injustice necessarily implicates one at least in the question of revolution.

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