Culture and Revolution

It is significant to see that the conception of culture as a web of meanings/symbols related with but apart from “social structure”, with its specific and autonomous dynamics, formulated by Clifford Geertz but reverberating the “division of labor” among social sciences set forth by T. Parsons, is still generally accepted among scholars including those with postmodernist propensities

We may state that, Geertz’ inheritance to his successors has two implications:

1)                     That culture is a “thing” related to the domain of mentalities/meanings/ symbols; and,

2)                     That since each and every culture consists of a web of meanings/symbols shared by the members of a particular society and only by them; any approach to culture can only be relativistic.

 This inheritance which gained a paradigmatic position at least in the domain of cultural anthropology, has led to the conception of culture as a “thing”, as an impersonal geist which envelops human beings, which possesses them notwithstanding their will, which guides them in their understanding and interpretation of things and in their behavior.

 To ponder upon the relations of “culture” and “revolution” first necessitates objecting to such an “interpretation of culture”. And such an objection must, in my opinion, depart from the idea that cultures are “constructs” constantly produced and reproduced within economical, political and social contexts.


In this respect, Eagleton (2000) in an important work in which he traces the historical track of the idea of culture draws our attention to the contiguousness of the original meaning of the concept to nature and labor processes. The concept of culture, deriving from the Latin verb colere which has various significations diverging “from agricultural development to dwelling, from worshiping to protecting” is intrinsic to nature “which itself produces the means of its own transcendence” or, to put it more correctly, to the transformation of nature through human agency. “If nature is in a sense always cultural, the cultures consist of their constant interaction with nature, or, more precisely, of what we call labor,” says Eagleton (2005: 11)

[1] while drawing our attention that the concept, once “signifying a totally materialistic process, has at some time “shifted to spiritualistic issues”. And the concept of culture, “in Marxist terms, gathers the super and substructure under the framework of a single concept.” (p. 10)


Yes, culture is shaped through the activities of man -himself a natural species- on nature, to be able to subsist. These activities necessitate that human beings relate to each other, to cohabit, to communicate, to organize, to see that these organizations are stable, to hand on knowledge and experience to forthcoming generations…  In other words, human beings “socialize” while providing for their natural needs; transform themselves from a herd to a society. What transforms human groups from herds to societies is precisely culture.


This brief evocation leads us to assert that to isolate the human activities that transform nature from human reflections, beliefs, imaginations, frames of signification, “webs of meaning”, symbol systems, etc. or to isolate culture from the society, though it may seem to provide analytic convenience, is an endeavor which complicates things. Any attempt at analysis which ignores the relations between human praxis and imagination (praxis generates imagination and is shaped by imagination) is not only incomplete, but also illusory.

 In other words, it is not possible to treat culture apart from human praxis and agency. The shapers, bearers, transferers of cultures are human beings, men who produce and transform their material conditions.

 Besides, men, or more precisely the societies they form are not harmonious organisms free of contradictions and conflicts, working corporately, but conflicting entities made up of fractions with differentiated access to political, economic and social resources. This “conflictuality” of societies belies the conception of culture as an “integrative”, “harmonious”, “contradiction-free” entity. Culture is actually the domain of conflict between various sections of the society which is its bearer: different social sections select different elements from their cultural repertoire (or import new ones), reinterpret and reconfigure them, and manipulate them in order to defend, consolidate or further their positions. The promotion of a certain cultural configuration to a hegemonic position signifies, among other things, the advance in the economic-political position of the social sector promoting it.

 However, the image of an atavistic perpetualness engendered by culture and the coercive/imperative force it conveys (“it is against our culture to do so and so”, “our culture and/or religion prescribes this”, etc.) render it an indispensable domain for struggles of power. It is no doubt an important means for those in power to legitimize their deeds by referring to a “culture” defined as a cohesive and consistent mental content or value system, mores and customs, etc. Hence, to conceive culture, which in its reality is a dynamic and conflicting domain, as a conflict-free, particularistic, “super-organic” phenomenon, a “geist” in and for itself is an endeavour charged with the risk of transforming it into a means and source of inertia, and even into a vehicle of reaction.

 Hence, in Parenti’s (1999) words: “Culture, then, is not an abstract force that floats around in space and settles upon us – though given the seemingly subliminal ways it influences us, it can feel like a disembodied, ubiquitous entity. In fact, culture is mediated through a social structure. We get our culture from a network of social relations involving other people: primary groups such as family, peers, and other informal associations within the community or, as is increasingly the case, from more formally articulated and legally chartered institutions such as schools, media, churches, government agencies, corporations, and the military.


Linked by purchase and persuasion to dominant ruling-class interests, such social institutions are regularly misrepresented as politically neutral, especially by those who occupy command positions within them or are otherwise advantaged by them. What Gramsci said about the military might apply to most other institutions in capitalist society: their ‘so-called neutrality only means support for the reactionary side.’”

 Yes we get acculturated through formal or informal institutions and/or groups formed in accordance with the ideologies of dominant classes and articulated with them. Our “cultural values” equipped with the sacred aura of the past, and presented as fruits of a centuries old continuity are, in reality, reproduced by the institutions or quasi-institutions which give direction to cultural life and the personnel of which is directly or indirectly connected to the interests of the dominant class(es). 

 But the control of the dominant classes on culture is never complete and absolute. The life-experiences of the oppressed and the exploited provide them with a cultural content which equips them with pockets of resistance. Hence the means to stigmatize each revolutionary advance as “a plot staged by foreign powers to degenerate, destabilize and disintegrate our national unity,” to present it as “a blaspheme to our mores and traditions, to our religion and national identity”, to trigger reaction with clamors about “religion and/or country being at stakes” are present in culture; or to put it more precisely, in the dominant classes’ definition of culture. Just as the cultural definitions and means of the oppressed which have not evaporated but are still lurking in that repertoire, to be recruited for the next upsurge. (Popular wisdom which says, “after the non-Muslims were gone the blessing of these lands were gone with them”, the communalistic and rebellious tradition of Borkluce Mustafa[2] are but two examples…)

 That is, within culture, there are tools both for the oppressors and the oppressed, both for the revolution and the counterrevolution…


* * * *


A shortcut definition for “revolution” is the meeting of the (subjective) will of an (organized) group who knows what they want and the (objective) discontent of the masses who know what they do not want. Hence revolution is the product of objective conditions as well as subjective will, or a dialectics of objectivity-subjectivity. The non-convergence of discontent and the will to change, or the insufficiency of one or both parts may lead to counter-revolutionary conditions.

 The culture gives the critical context of the convergence of mass discontent and the revolutionary organization. A vehicle to transform the abstruse mass discontent to the will to participate to the revolutionary agenda is the effort to render this agenda harmonious with the cultural context of the society. As I have stated above, the cultural content of every society is ambiguous and open to interventions from “below” as well as those from “above” and it consists of elements which may be defined both by revolutionary forces of change as those preserving the status quo.

 Hence the revolution is doomed to be a deficient (and hence, reversible) initiative when it only aims at changing economic/political conditions; any attempt at a revolution which does not envision a social/cultural transformation or rather, which fails to redefine the cultural repertoire of society on a pro-labor, pro-peace, pro-brother/sisterhood and pro-participation basis will open the way to the counter-revolutionary forces.

 Yes every revolution, in order to be able to perpetuate, has to be, at the same time, a “cultural revolution” – in the sense of transforming the frames of reference through which the masses interpret actuality. But the deed of “transforming the frames of reference through which actuality is interpreted”, when imposed on the society through coercive measures, incites a strong and persistent reaction – as exemplified by the Kemalist reforms in Turkey. Radical and coercive interventions to cultural domain facilitate the presentation of those who intervene as autocrats, “alien” and “external”.

 Thus, cultural transformation may be most efficient when realized through the reinterpretation of cultural elements within the repertoire. The participation of the bearers of culture (of course of the subaltern and the oppressed and not of the brokers) to this process of reinterpretation is a sine qua non, if this transformation is to be successful.


* * *


To resume, I may state that,

·      Culture is not a geist which envelops us all, but a humane sphere of activity which is as dynamic as it is contradictory. Man reproduces the mental frameworks to interpret the living conditions he produces.

·      That culture encompasses not only the actuality but also the historical, in other words, its consisting of the sediments of social praxis, renders it a source of legitimization from which different social sectors/classes derive support for their political agenda.

·      In other words, its “legitimizing” power renders it a critical resource both for the interventions of the opressors/exploiters to perpetuate the status quo and for the actual and long-term transformative struggles of the oppressed and the exploited.

·      But what has been said up to now should not lead to the conclusion that culture is a “derivative” (or a “by-product”) open to arbitrary (or mechanistic) interferences and rough interventions. The transformation of culture is the process of “reinterpretation” of the “things” that consist the cultural repertoire (i.e. ideas, values, styles, modalities, frames, ways, propensities…) And this is a process which necessitates the participation of the bearers/transferes of a culture, and especially of the most “subaltern”, the most oppressed and exploited among them…




References cited


Eagleton, Terry (2000). The Idea of Culture. Verso.

        (2005). Kültür Yorumları. Ä°stanbul: Ayrıntı Yayınları.


Parenti, M. (1999).Reflections on the Politics of Culture”, Monthly Review, vol. 50, no. 9.

[1] The citations are rough translations from the Turkish translation of Eagleton’s The Idea of Culture (2000).

[2] Borkluce Mustafa is a disciple of Sheikh Bedreddin, a heterodox religious leader who had propagated communalistic ideas in the late 14th and early 15th centuries within Otoman territories. Borkluce led a popular/peasant revolt against Otoman rule with egalitarian and emancipatory demands. The revolt was violently repressed, but the event has left a permanent stamp on the popular conscioussness, inspiring generations of Alevites and later, young social rebels of the 1970’s.

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