Revolution 2: More thoughts on ‘Revolution’ by Stuart Christie

barrikaden[1]It is often supposed that revolution is something distinct from evolution. But if we examine the history of the past two hundred years or so it becomes evident that revolution and evolution are part and parcel of a single process. As Alexander Berkman observed: ‘Revolution is merely the boiling point of evolution‘ (What is Communist Anarchism? New York, 1972, p. 226). The problem for political scientists and revolutionaries alike, is, however, identifying when and under what economic, cultural and social circumstances evolutionary change becomes revolutionary.

Since 1789 the generally accepted view of revolution, at least among its protagonists, has been inextricably linked with the desire for ‘freedom’ from oppression and exploitation. Hannah Arendt makes a point that is absolutely crucial to any understanding of revolutions in the modern age:

‘… Freedom and the experience of a new beginning should coincide … since the current notion of‘ the Free World is that freedom, and neither justice nor greatness, is the highest criterion for judging the constitutions of  political bodies, it is not only our understanding of revolution but our conception of freedom, clearly revolutionary in origin, on ‘which may hinge the extent to which we are prepared to accept or reject this coincidence.’ (On Revolution, London, 1965, p.29)

Execution of Charles 1, Jan 30 1649

In the language of political elites, parties and the mass media, the concept of revolution has, today, been subtly mutated from a moral desire for ‘freedom’ as a means of individual and collective self-development into the totally amoral concept of ‘liberation’ as a violent mechanism for replacing one set of repressive state forces by another set. ‘Freedom’ is not a value in itself, even for making citizens more socially conscious. Revolution simply registers the wishes of the people as they are and has nothing to do with whatever ideal to which they aspire. ‘Liberation’, as Arendt notes, ‘may be the condition of freedom but by no means ‘leads automatically to it; that the notion of liberty implied in liberation can only be negative, and hence, that even the intention of liberating is not identical‘ with the desire for freedom’. (Ibid) Indeed the word ‘freedom’ as employed in contemporary Third World ‘revolutions’ is a euphemism for the ability of the larger economic interests to operate without constraint — it means economic as opposed to social freedom.

Looking at the history of the modern world we find three principal models of ‘revolution’. The first can be called the ‘bourgeois’ revolution. It involves a conglomerate of contending subordinate political elements — a temporary coalition of class interests, but representing, primarily, the capitalist and professional classes with the small peasantry, landless workers, artisans and the lower middle classes in a supporting role — rejecting the values, ideas and ‘arbitrary’ laws of the ruling class and withdrawing their consent to be governed. Unable to persuade the ruling class to step down and adapt to the needs of the emerging classes, they take political (state) power by force. The new ruling elite subsequently legitimises its dominant position in society by recourse to allegedly universal values such as the ‘Rule of Law’ and the creation of an organic ‘nation state’ whose interests and values they represent.

The second model is the coup d’état or change of regime, where a party, group or military clique claiming to represent the interests of one particular class or another (Lenin’s Russia, Castro’s Cuba, Mao’s China) and seizes control of the state apparatus and the means of production. Variations on this theme include Hitler’s Germany and the various post-WWII National Security States of East and West, particularly those within the US sphere of influence in Latin America and the Near- and Far East. All these states retain strict hegemony over domestic political, social and economic life in alleged pursuit of an idealised harmonious organic society: the corporate or unitary — even religious — state. The American commentator S.P. Huntington defined this type of charismatic revolution thus: ‘A revolution is a rapid, fundamental and violent domestic change in the dominant values and myths of society, in its political institutions, social structure, leadership, government activity and policies.‘ (Political order in changing societies, New Haven, 1968, p. 264)

In the 1848 Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels outlined their view of the ‘more or less veiled civil war‘ of classes raging within society that ultimately ‘breaks out into open revolution‘ (Selected Works, Vol. I. p. 217.). This view of revolution as a consequence of the class struggle — a view based on their interpretation of the French revolution which they considered an exemplary and cataclysmic conflict between feudal and bourgeois society — has since come to dominate the theory and mythology of revolution by what Perez Zagorin describes as ‘extra-historical abstractions‘ and as ‘metaphysical philosophy of history‘. ‘Instead of being taken as a hypothesis subject to testing, correction and disproof, it has been made, mainly for political purposes, into an a priori presupposition through which the entire problem of revolution is approached and resolved‘. (Rebels and Rulers, Cambridge, 1982, p. 16.)

It was a view sustained by Marx’s follower Lenin and his admirer, Mao Tse-Tung. In 1917 Lenin wrote, ‘The passing of state power from one class to another is the first, the basic principle of a revolution, both in the strictly scientific and in the practical meaning of that term.‘ (Letters on tactics Vol. XX.). Mao Tse Tung denounced revisionism in 1960, declaring: ‘revolution means the use of revolutionary violence by the oppressed class. This is true of slave revolution; this is also true of the bourgeois revolution.‘ (Essential Works of Marxism, New York, 1965, p. 545)

Over a hundred years later two of Marx‘s latter day disciples, the late President of Chile, Salvador Allende, and Regis Debray, a French Marxist ‘philosopher, returned similar statist answers to the question ‘What is Revolution?’ ‘It is the transfer of power‘, said Allende, ‘from a minority to a majority class‘. Debray explained: ‘it is the transfer of power from one class to another. Revolution is the destruction of the machinery of the bourgeois state and the replacement of it by another.‘ (The Chilean Revolution: Conversations with Allende, New York, 1971, pp 81, 116)

Class struggle may often be an important element in the revolutionary process, but it is not necessarily the central explanatory principle in the theoretical and historical treatment of revolution as Marxist theory argues. The Marxian view, which subsumes all revolution under the single category of class struggle cannot account for revolutions that appear to present a different origin or character. Referring to the English Revolution of 1640, Peter Laslett has asked ‘whether the word revolution can justifiably be used of Seventeenth Century England if anything of Social Revolution is intended.‘ He goes on to point out that between the Sixteenth and Eighteenth centuries economic and social change was relatively slow and gradual and contained nothing that ‘would have led of itself to political crisis‘. Laslett denies that class struggle is the necessary cause of revolutions and contends that ‘”revolution” as meaning a resolution of unendurable social conflict by reshaping society as a whole was ‘impossible in preindustrial times.’ (The World We Have Lost, New York, 1971, pp. 159-60, 167, 171.) The conclusion to be drawn here, then, is not that there were no revolutions in preindustrial society but that the Marxian theory of revolution is incapable of dealing with them on its own terms.

In both these types of revolution change is limited not so much to the apparatus of government, which remains essentially the same, but to the personnel — the rulers, ministers, administrators, managers (often only their job description) — and the most basic forms and institutions of government have been changed. Social and economic relationships between people, the state and the means of production remain as alienated as under all previous regimes.

Revolutionaries of these authoritarian schools of thought share the common Jacobin illusion that change can only be effected through the centralised machinery of party and state; that liberty and equality would be realised by decree. Having acquired political power the moral and human outlook of the revolutionary leadership becomes superseded by impersonal administrative imperatives. Bound by the very nature of a centralised apparatus to act contrary to their stated principles they become alienated from those principles and the movement they claim to represent; they no longer see themselves as responsible for their own actions but as an impersonal organic instrument for carrying out the wishes of others. They undergo what Stanley Milgram has described as the ‘agentic’ shift, i.e., the transition from being outside the authority system to becoming part of that system. This process immediately brings them into conflict with the base of the revolutionary movement who continue to pursue the liberatory dynamic of the revolution by diffusing power down to the natural political units of factory and local revolutionary committees This development is inevitably seen as a challenge to the political sovereignty and high ideological goals of the revolutionary leadership (whose universal identifying characteristic is a distrust or fear of the ability of the masses to organise their own lives) and the most militant elements of the base are singled out for criminalisation either as ‘uncontrollables’ or ‘counter-revolutionaries’ and repressed with greater or lesser ruthlessness.

This brings us to the third revolutionary model, the libertarian social revolution that predicates the political, economic and social transformation of society. The social revolutionary model has been present in all popular revolutionary situations from the American Revolution to the present day. Its distinguishing feature is the existence of a dual power structure, i.e., the existence of autonomous local revolutionary committees.

The anarchist theory of revolution contends that human history is based not, as the Marxists argue, purely on a class struggle between property owners and the dispossessed, but is also a struggle between governors and subjects, between freedom and authority. Its guiding principle (based on the experience of centuries that on every occasion when the people have entrusted their fate to a central authority, that authority has ended up enslaving them) is the belief that ‘liberty‘ and ‘justice’ cannot be upheld through state power or any authority principle, even by the most enlightened political leadership.

‘Liberty’ is seen not only as an integral part of the vision of the new world, but, above all, a weapon in the struggle against the old world. Having acquired state power, anarchists argue, the power elite develops an autonomous life and purpose of its own distinct from the purposes for which it was intended. Theda Skocpol supports this view of the state as a macro-structure with two fundamental tasks — the maintenance of order and competing with other states: ‘the state properly conceived is no mere arena in which socioeconomic struggles are fought out. It is, rather, a set of administrative, policing, and military organisations headed, and more or less coordinated by, an executive authority. Any state first and fundamentally extracts resources from society and deploys these to create and support coercive and administrative organisations …[these] are the basis of state power as such.‘ (States and Social Revolutions p. 29) Bakunin made the same point over a hundred years earlier:

‘In a word, war within and war without — such is the life of the government. It must be armed and ceaselessly on guard against both domestic and foreign enemies. Though itself breathing oppression and deceit, it is bound to regard all, within and outside its borders, as enemies, and must be in a state of conspiracy against all of them.’ (Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 365)

Thus, for anarchists, the social, political and economic objectives of the revolution can only be achieved through the elimination of centralised state power, not through it; social revolution is the spontaneous creation of a mass movement under the leadership of the producing and property-less classes, organised federally in organs of popular power, representing consumers and producers as opposed to ideological or party leadership.

Skocpol notes that the Marxist theory of revolution stops short at the problem of the autonomy of the state:

‘Neither in classical Marxism nor in Tilly’s collective action theory is the state treated as an autonomous structure — a structure with a logic and interests of its own not necessarily equivalent to or fused with, the interests of the dominant class in society or the full set of member groups in the polity. Within the terms of these theories, it is consequently virtually impossible even to raise the possibility that fundamental conflicts of interest might arise between the existent dominant class or set of groups, on the one hand, and the state rulers on the other. Society is characterised by intergroup domination and power struggles. And the state, based upon concentrated means of coercion, fits in as a form of instrumental or objective domination and as an object of domination, but not as an organisation for itself.’ (p. 27)

Tension between political and social revolution has existed since, at least, the American and French revolutions. The theoretical conclusions of anarchist revolutionaries were the fruit of earlier practical revolutionary experiences and historical events of modern times. These conclusions were spelled out at the International Working Men’s Association founding St. Imier Congress in September 1872:

‘Being of the view that all political organisation cannot be anything else than the organisation of the rule of one class to the detriment of the masses and that the proletariat, were it to attain power, would itself change into a ruling, exploiting class, Congress declares 1) that the destruction of all political power is the first duty of the proletariat 2) that any organisation of a political power styling itself provisional and revolutionary with that destruction as its objective can be only one more trick, thereby being as dangerous to the proletariat as every government presently in existence.’

In the American and French revolutions Hannah Arendt points to the political importance of the self-governing township meetings and the popular clubs, societies and non-partisan municipal bodies as the genuine organs of popular revolutionary power. (On Revolution, p. 240) These organs of popular power soon came into conflict with the centralised power of the state. Saint Just, once a firm defender of the rights of the societies against the National Assembly, turned against them after he came to power:

‘The freedom of the people is in its private life; don’t disturb it. Let the government be a force only in order to protect this state of simplicity against force itself.’

The failure of the 1789 and 1848 French revolutions also underlined the conflict between centralised and federal power. In 1851 Proudhon observed that the revolutionary leadership had failed to fulfill their mission from the moment they seized the Bastille, just as the socialist leaders had failed in the wake of the February 1848 Revolution and for the same reason:

‘They had no notion of economics, they believed in government, and they mistrusted the proletariat. In 1793 the necessity of resisting invasion demanded an enormous concentration of forces, thus innovation was out of the question. The principle of centralisation that was widely applied by the Committee of Public safety became a dogma for the Jacobins, who handed it down to the Empire and the governments that succeeded it. Such is the unhappy tradition that in 1848 was responsible for the retrograde course of the Provisional Government and that still at present is accepted as definitive and constitutes the staple food of the Republican party.’ (On Revolution, pp. 123-27)


Ernest Coeurderoy was, unlike Proudhon, one of the many revolutionary activists who had taken part in the successful February revolution in Paris, when the monarchy was replaced by a bourgeois republic. He had also been involved in the unsuccessful June rising against the Provisional Government when the organs of popular power tried to replace the bourgeois regime and were savagely repressed. Coeuerderoy’s views on revolution were expressed in 1854:

‘Revolutionary anarchists, let us say it loudly: we have no hope except in the human deluge; we have no future except in chaos; we have no chance except in a general war which, mixing all races and smashing all established relationships, will remove from the hands of the ruling classes the instruments of oppression with which they violate the liberties won at the price of our blood.’ (Hurrah!!! or Revolution by Cossacks, 1854)

The centralising principle also led to the collapse of the revolutionary Paris Commune in 1871 and prevented the spread of revolution throughout the rest of France. ‘Had not time been wasted in forming the government’ wrote Louis Michel, the most prominent figure thrown up by that revolutionary event, and ‘had they marched immediately against the Versailles troops who were still weak, the victory would have gone to the Commune.‘ The Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Spanish Revolution of 1936-37 repeated this mistake.

Lenin, who viewed anarchists and libertarians as bourgeois or petit bourgeois, often conjured up the vision of the Commune as an example of the revolutionary process. What he appears to have overlooked (or ignored), however, was the fact that the Jacobin majority that sought centralised dictatorial power consisted of the petit-bourgeoisie, non-socialist republicans and democrats. In contrast, the anti-government, federalist, autonomist, anti-dictatorial minority consisted principally of workers and socialists. Only the Blanquist socialist group agreed with the bourgeois radical minority.

From the outset of the Russian Revolution Lenin, considered by many to be the paragon of revolutionary virtue, had set himself the objective of establishing state communism as the first priority of the revolution. Clinging to Marxist theory as established truths, Lenin claimed that, ultimately, state capitalism would become a humane method of production, working in the interests of the people. But, like their mentor, Marx, none of the Bolshevik leadership possessed any theoretical concept of freedom. Nor did they appreciate the ‘iron law’ of state power to develop institutionalised interests of its own, even at the expense of the revolutionary ideals that guided the party. It was the centralisation of all political, economic and social power in the hands of a minority party which permitted the leadership of that party, whether out of fear, ‘historical necessity’ or expediency to sacrifice the new, autonomous, local organs of popular power that had sprung up everywhere, independent of one another — the soviets — and halt the process of regional and provincial co-ordination and integration which would have made the Bolshevik state apparatus superfluous.

Bukharin, Lenin’s close friend and protégé, summed up the Bolshevik attitude in The Economics of the Transformation Period (Moscow, 1920):

‘From a broader point of view, i.e., from the point of view of a historical scale of greater scope, proletarian compulsion in all its forms, from executions to compulsory labour, constitutes, as paradoxical as this may sound, a method of the formation of a new communist humanity from the human material of the capitalist epoch.’

Opposite this quote Lenin made a note which is to be found in an appendix to the English translation of the book — ‘Precisely!’

Similarly, the centralisation of power through the Central Antifascist Militias Committee, a central state in embryo, prevented the factory and barrio committees thrown up in the wake of the military rising in Spain in 1936 from developing and consolidating themselves as organs of popular power capable of displacing the centralised state. In this case the legitimisers of state power were not the Marxists but the anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist union leadership who, frightened of their own membership and of the alleged threat of foreign intervention abandoned all the fundamental planks of their anarchist principles. Having undergone the ‘agentic’ shift they came to believe that their participation in government had changed the nature of the state; government had therefore ceased to be a force of oppression against the working class. As Bakunin foresaw:

‘Great dominant individuals are absolutely necessary in a political revolution; in a social revolution they are not only useless, they are positively harmful and are incompatible with the foremost aim of that revolution, the emancipation of the masses. At present, in revolutionary action as in modern labour, the collective must supplant the individual.‘ (op. cit., p 374)

Spain is, undoubtedly, the clearest demonstration of the fate of a revolution that attempted to create a genuinely autonomous society without making a complete break with parties and unions inherently given to control and manipulation and drawn, magnetically, to the state. The experience of all foregoing revolutions teaches us clearly that the pursuit of radical social alternatives through direct action can in no way be complemented by activity designed to produce change through the state. History shows that the statist method is dictatorial and, ultimately, destructive to the development of the revolution. Only a revolution in which there is no departure from the principles of liberty will succeed in securing the objectives that the social revolution sets itself.

In the last quarter of the 19th century Bakunin wisely noted that the principal reason why revolutionaries had failed to achieve much towards their stated objectives was because, ‘they always wanted to create a Revolution themselves, by their own authority and by their own power.‘ This had a twofold effect: first it narrowed the field of revolutionary activity ‘for it is impossible even for the most intelligent, most energetic, most candid revolutionary authority to encompass at once the great number of questions and interests stirred up by the revolution.‘ Secondly, its legally imposed authority ‘awakens within the masses a rebellious feeling, a legitimate counter-reaction.’

How, then, asks Bakunin, could the Revolution be organised and extended?

‘They must not do it themselves, by revolutionary decrees, by imposing this task upon the masses; rather their aim should be that of provoking the masses to action. They must not try to impose upon the masses any organisation whatever but rather should induce the people to set up autonomous organisations. This can be done by gaining influence over the most intelligent and advanced individuals of high standing in each locality, so that these organisations will conform as much as possible to our principles.’

Bakunin emphatically challenged the view of the Marxist revolutionaries who, like Lenin, fell victim to the ideological abstraction of a ‘correct’ stance, with its blinkered mechanistic view of social processes which divide all social phenomena into ‘either/or‘ good or evil:

‘Who doubts that this work [Revolution] is fraught with immense difficulties? Does anyone think that the Revolution is child’s play, and that it can be carried out without surmounting innumerable obstacles? Revolutionary socialists of our days could find nothing — or almost nothing — to imitate in the revolutionary tactics and proceedings of the Jacobins of 1793. Revolutionary routine would ruin them. They should work upon the basis of living experience; they must create everything anew.’(op. cit., p. 398)

The obsession with revolution as a linear social development along a historically pre-ordained path has been an all too familiar trap in contemporary revolutionary thinking. Together with the inordinate belief entertained by revolutionary leaders in the viability of their own personal solutions to the social problems of today, this elitist approach has contributed directly and substantially to the perversion of all revolutions from 1789 to the present day. Terror as an institutional device, from Robespierre’s ‘reign of terror‘ through the Stalinist terror of the 1930s through to the subsequent totalitarian excesses of the more recent National Security and fundamentalist States should not be viewed as an aberration in the development of an otherwise healthy revolutionary society, but as the logical and inevitable outcome of a philosophy which is primarily concerned with the attaining and retention of power. The lessons of the revolutionary experiences of the past two hundred years show only too clearly that whenever a revolutionary people surrenders its political and economic power, to those who presume to speak and act on their behalf, their revolutionary achievements will soon be dismantled, their militants terrorised and murdered, and their aspirations for ‘freedom’ distorted out of all recognisable shape.


Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, New York, 1963.

Theda Skocpol, States & Social Revolutions, Cambridge, 1979.

Perez Zagorin, Rebels & Rulers 1500-1660, Cambridge, 1982.

Michael Bakunin, Political Philosophy, London, 1953

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Selected Writings, London, 1969

Regis Debray, The Chilean Revolution: Conversations with Allende, New York, 1971.

Peter Laslett, The World We Have Lost, New York, 1971.

S.P. Huntington, Political Order In Changing Societies, New Haven, 1968,

Essential Works of Marxism, New York, 1965