You Say You Want a Revolution, but What Kind?

by Benjamin Studebaker

So in light of recent writings about Russell Brand and Robert Webb, I’ve been thinking about the concept of revolution and the connotations it carries in our society. For the average person, I imagine the word “revolution” brings to mind first and foremost the kind of comprehensive, totalizing socio-economic and political change associated with Marxism. As a result, otherwise left-leaning people tend to harbor a deep skepticism about changes that go beyond which political party is in power or the enacting or repealing of various peripheral policies and laws. However, upon further reflection, I don’t think that all revolutions fit this stereotype. Indeed, the exclusive association of the term “revolution” with the conception of revolution used by Marxists is a significant obstacle to necessary, big-picture change.

I’d like to draw a distinction between two different kinds of revolution:

  1. Comprehensive Revolution
  2. Political Revolution

I’ll take each in turn.

Comprehensive Revolution

This is a revolution in which we attempt to change not merely the structure of the political system, but the structure of all social systems simultaneously. The French and Russian Revolutions are of this variety, as well as the Paris Commune and other like cases. Here state policies change before the state structure is itself fully reformed. As a result, there is a kind of arbitrary character to the change. Because no new structures or institutions have stabilized, the policy changes are not made through an accountable system. Change arises anarchically. While proponents of this kind of revolution often imagine change arising through direct democracy or consensus, the tendency is for change to arise through the dominance of highly charismatic individuals, e.g. Robespierre, Lenin, or, more recently, Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi. Because no stable state structures exist, these individuals are able to carry through extraordinarily vast reforms, but without the legitimation that more formal political infrastructure would provide. As a result, the moves they make are often suspect–they are seen to be co-opting their respective revolutions, to be using the revolution as a pretext to usurp power for themselves. Indeed, when these individuals put forth state structures that seem inherently biased toward their particular points of view (Morsi’s constitution for Egypt is a classic example), they generate deep unease, such that even questionable rumors surrounding the charismatic leader can incite tremendous fear (e.g. the belief that Robespierre wanted to replace Catholicism with a “cult of the supreme being” with himself as god).

As a result, the tendency is for the populations to become suspicious of these charismatic change agents and, when given the opportunity, to instead turn to more reactionary figures that offer immediate stability–e.g. Napoleon or Stalin (Abdel Fattah el-Sisi may provide the Egyptian equivalent). These figures then typically do precisely what the people were afraid their charismatic leaders would do–co-opt the revolution to seize and institutionalize power for themselves. However, because these figures build these institutions in a way that is more reflective of preceding institutions, they are able to lull the masses into compliance (e.g. Napoleon and Stalin co-opted the autocratic methods of the Bourbons and the Romanovs, respectively). What we really get is the collapse the revolution in favor of the old status quo, albeit one that is aesthetically different. Napoleon and Stalin aesthetically claim the symbols and principles of their preceding revolutions while in practice reinstating institutions and policies that are much more like the ones their revolutions originally overturned than they are like the revolutionary policies the charismatic figures haphazardly enacted.

Comprehensive revolutions consequently have a tendency to collapse in on themselves. While they have extremely explicit progressive aims, their practical tendency is to be status quo reinforcing, so often there is a lot of suffering and violence without much to show for it. The French people remained under emperors and kings through 1870 (with the brief 4 year exception that was the second republic, which collapsed into a new autocracy just as the first did). The Russians remain under autocrats to this day, though these autocrats claim the aesthetic mantle of liberal democracy rather than Marxism. In the French case, comprehensive revolution produced nearly an additional century of autocracy–the Russians will reach an additional century of autocrats in 4 years. The French only deposed their last emperor, Napoleon III, due his humiliating defeat by Prussia. The Russians have no similar foreign threat to compel a change in government, and may remain under autocrats indefinitely. For these reasons, a healthy skepticism of comprehensive revolutions is a good thing. as the Beatles emphasized:

You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world
You tell me that it’s evolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world
But when you talk about destruction
Don’t you know that you can count me out

The trouble is that this skeptical attitude toward comprehensive revolutions is quickly misapplied to revolutions of all kinds. There is a more nuanced way of bringing about big-picture structural change.

Political Revolution

A political revolution deliberately sets more modest goals than a comprehensive revolution, but does so in order to achieve even more in the long-run. A political revolution is itself policy-neutral. There is no effort to make comprehensive changes to the country’s socio-economic system. Dissatisfaction with the socio-economic system may be a motivator for political revolution, but political revolutionaries defer changing the socio-economic system until they have put into place new political institutions that are stable and self-legitimating. Political revolutionaries recognize that in order to make the kinds of social and economic changes they wish to make, they first and foremost need a political system that will enable them to make those changes in a sustainable way. The institutions have lexical priority over the policies–only when the former are firmly in place can we even begin to think about the latter.

As a result, debate within a political revolutionary movement centers not on what the country’s policies should be, but on how the state should itself be structured. Instead of arguing over what to do with the nobles, or how to redistribute the property, or the fate of this or that religious or secular sect, political revolutionaries first and foremost attempt to agree on a system for resolving these disputes indefinitely going forward.

This is, on its face, a much more logical course of action. It is irrational to attempt to collectively decide policies without having first devised a system for deciding those questions. Comprehensive revolutions make these decisions in an institutional vacuum, and that results in instability and anarchy that can only produce tyranny.

I do not conceive of political revolution as merely a hypothetical alternative–the American and English revolutions were both political in nature. In both cases, the goal of the revolutionaries was first and foremost to develop a new state structure, a new way of resolving disputes, before they permitted themselves to argue over questions of policies. During the American Revolution, Jefferson and Hamilton are on the same side; it is only after the constitution is written and established that their extraordinarily different visions of what state policy ought to look like really come into play, via the contest between the federalists and the democratic-republicans.

Those of us who think structural change is necessary in order to bring about a just society may focus on matters of policy, justice, and the good in order to convince our fellow citizens that the present political system is not doing its job, but if and when we actually engage in revolutionary activity, it must be first and foremost on behalf of a concrete alternative political system, not on behalf of a set of values. We will differ on values and conceptions of the good and of justice, and so we must design a new political system that people of disparate views can sign up to. Even though Jefferson and Hamilton had highly divergent opinions on what the new government should do policy-wise, they were able to come to some agreement about what it ought to look like structurally. When we consider replacing our present democratic institutions with newer, more sophisticated variants, we need institutions that are themselves ideologically neutral, that can be acceptable to disaffected people of various leanings such that all of us see the potential for our views to prevail in the new structure if they conform (or can be made to conform) to the standards our new institutions consider valuable.

It is absolutely of the utmost importance that before any revolutionary activity be undertaken that we have a clear view of the kind of political system we want, and that we focus first and foremost on bringing about that system. For this reason, while I often comment on injustices or inefficiencies within our politics as a means to spur readers to consider the merits of structural change, my primary intellectual project is not devising just policies, but devising just political systems–good governance always precedes good policy. This is what I’m on about when I discuss the sophiarchist state.