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What Is Revolution?


[The editorial board of Birikim (www.birikimdergisi.com.), one of the oldest socialist commentary monthlies of Europe and the Middle East, published in Turkish, asked a number of people to answer the question What is Revolution, for a special edition of the periodical. This was my answer…

By the word revolution many people mean gigantic social conflagration. They have in mind a moment in time, or a brief span. They may have in mind violence. I mean by the word revolution, instead, a change in defining institutions in either of four key spheres of social life: economy, polity, culture, or gender/kinship.

Since revolution as I define it changes defining institutions it both opposes past ways and constructs new ways. What I mean be the term revolution includes opposition, organizing, abolition, and creation.

A revolution could have a cataclysmic moment or a cataclysmic period, but cataclysm isn’t in my definition. Cataclysm is not required. There could be violence in a revolution and there certainly would be struggle. But for me these are aspects, not the defining feature.

Revolutionary change could be for the better, I should add, as some people probably take for granted, but reducing oppression or enhancing liberation isn’t in my definition, either. Benefit is not required. What is required for a social process to be a revolution, at least as I define the word, is that centrally defining institutional structures in one of four critical spheres of social life fundamentally alter.

This usage is a bit idiosyncratic, I know. I also know that to make it precise I would have to clarify what I mean by all the involved concepts. But short of that, obviously this definition avoids prioritizing one sphere of life over all others. Revolution isn’t only economics, or only politics, or only culture, or only kinship. Revolution can be about any one, or all of these spheres of social life. This definition also obviously avoids fetishizing one method of change over all others.

Since I have little space, let me confine further remarks to economics, where I am more versed. And let me highlight the present time, where I actually live. With those constraints, I believe only three economic systems are relevant to thinking about revolution: (1) what we all call capitalism, (2) what I call coordinatorism (but which others call market socialism or centrally planned socialism), and (3) what I call participatory economics. These three systems are fundamentally different in their implications for human behavior. Moving a society from one to any other, in any direction, is to my mind an economic revolution.

Switching from capitalism to market socialism or centrally planned socialism with considerable violence and great struggle along the way achieved an economic revolution, by my definition. But so did switching from market socialism or centrally planned socialism to capitalism, as has occurred quite recently – almost entirely without violence and with very little struggle. Moving from either a coordinator economy or from capitalism to participatory economics would also be an economic revolution, the one that I favor and work for.

About these three economic models:

Capitalism has private ownership of productive assets, corporate divisions of labor, authoritarian decision making, remuneration for property, power, and to a degree output, and markets for allocation.

Coordinatorism eliminates the private ownership of productive assets, retains the authoritarian decision making and corporate division of labor, retains remuneration for power and output but does away with remuneration for property, and either retains markets or replaces markets with central planning.

Participatory economics, or parecon for short, eliminates private ownership or productive assets (or really it eliminates ownership of productive assets at all), replaces corporate divisions of labor with balanced job complexes, replaces authoritarian decision making with self managed workers and consumers councils, remunerates duration, intensity, and onerousness of work and not property, power, or output, and replaces markets (or central planning) with participatory planning.

Each of these three economic types can come with many additional features and with variations, of course, but regarding basic types, I think these three capture modern economic options.

In most countries, therefore, seeking anti capitalist economic revolution means seeking either market or centrally planned socialism – which I call coordinatorism after the roughly twenty percent of the population who monopolizes its empowering positions and serves as this economy’s ruling class – or seeking participatory economics, which is classless. I seek revolution of the latter kind. I seek parecon and I reject capitalism as well as both market and centrally planned coordinatorism.

Typically, revolutions, economic or otherwise, wind up where they are structurally aimed to go, whatever contrary rhetoric they may spin about themselves or even deceive themselves with. This refers to all four spheres of social life, but regarding economics we can be pretty explicit about it.

Anti-capitalist movements that embody the logic of coordinatorism and that reflect and manifest the preferences of members of the coordinator class of lawyers, managers, engineers, and other empowered employees, will likely lead to a coordinator economy, when they win revolutionary change.

On the other hand, anti-capitalist movements that embody the logic of parecon and reflect and manifest the preferences of members of the working class, will likely lead to a participatory economy, when they win revolutionary change.

So, about a contemporary anti-capitalist revolutionary movement and its processes, we can sensibly discuss whether its organizational structure and methods of operation and decision making and its general overall logic accord with seeking coordinatorism, on the one hand, or with seeking parecon, on the other hand.

Setting aside the above, many people address the question what is revolution from another direction. They say that revolution rejects reform. This, I think, if taken literally, makes no sense.

A reform is a change in current relations that falls short of overcoming underlying defining structures. A reform is therefore not a revolution. More, reformism, which seeks only reforms and which assumes that at the most basic level there is no alternative to structures that we currently endure, is, in fact, antithetical to revolution. Reformism accepts status quo institutions as permanent. But reforms themselves are not reformism and are not contrary to seeking revolution.

Indeed, quite the contrary, efforts to win modern revolutionary change require building movements that inspire sufficient numbers of members, and arouse sufficient commitment and militancy of members, to enact basic change. But one central technique for building such movements involves trying to win reforms in the present. We have to fight for better conditions, better laws, better income distribution and other improved outcomes of diverse kinds now, short of revolution, both to improve people’s lives now, and to amass means for winning greater gains later.

So what makes someone who fights to win reforms revolutionary rather than reformist?

A revolutionary fights for reforms not only to make people’s lives better now, but also to awaken new desires, to prepare for pursuing new demands, to foster new organization, to raise new consciousness, and, in general, to be part of a process aimed ultimately at fundamental change.

A revolutionary might often seek the same reforms as a reformist, but a revolutionary will do so with different explanatory language, different exhortation, different organization, and, most important, with a very different attitude about what comes next. The reformist fights to return home and enjoy the fruits of victory. The revolutionary fights so that people might be better off now, but also in order to fight again, and then again, until there is no longer need to fight because the world has been altered.

What beyond seeking revolution defines being a revolutionary?

A revolutionary is what those who favor revolution, when they are most committed and most hopeful, try to embody daily. The modern world has so much compromises and craziness that this isn’t easy, even if one sincerely seeks to accomplish it. Revolution is not a lifestyle and not a t-shirt. It isn’t something that one turns on and off. It isn’t something that one does part time, or periodically, at least not if one is a revolutionary. You can aid revolution part time or periodically, for sure, and that is a very very good thing to do, I believe. But, beyond that, to actually become a revolutionary means, I think, that you always have as one very large component of how you look at things, of how you think about things, and especially of what you decide to do, trying to best contribute to revolution.

So, again, what is revolution?

Revolution is an accumulation of victories won by aroused populations leading to fundamental changes in defining social relations, and it is those achieved changes too, and it is also the process of designing the new relations, and of implementing them, and it is, as well, the process of populations becoming aroused, becoming informed, becoming organized along the way.

Revolution ends old epochs and begins new ones. Revolution can replace poverty with equity, derision with respect, anti-social egoism with solidarity, alienation with community, authoritarianism with self management, homogenization with diversity, patriarchy with feminism, racism with intercommunalism, and the economics of greed and competition with the economics of mutual aid and cooperation.

Revolution is a way of life that people can sensibly adopt if they care about themselves, their families, their friends, their neighbors, their local fellow citizens, and people all over the world.

Revolution is what is on the revolutionary’s agenda. It is, indeed, the heart and soul of the revolutionary’s agenda. It is what we need in the modern world, for liberty, and probably even for survival.

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