What Is Revolution?

Written for teleSUR English, which will launch on July 24



With July 4, celebrating America’s revolution, one day past, perhaps today is a good time to ask – what is revolution?

By the word revolution, most people mean gigantic social conflagration. They envision a moment in time, or a brief span. They envision 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 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 possible aspects, not the defining features.

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 or more 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 about all of these spheres of social life. Typically since they each affect the others, it will be at least somewhat about them all. This definition also avoids fetishizing one method of change over all others.

To avoid undue length, I confine further remarks to economics, where I am more versed. And I highlight the present time, where I actually live. With those boundaries, I believe only three economic systems are relevant to thinking about revolution today: (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 or, if you prefer, participatory socialism. These three systems are fundamentally different in their implications for human economic life. 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 often 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 more recently – largely 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 it means seeking participatory economics – though someone may give it a different name and may have variants in mind – 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 primarily the preferences and world views of members of the coordinator class of lawyers, managers, engineers, and other empowered employees, will likely lead to a coordinator economy if they win revolutionary change.

On the other hand, anti-capitalist movements that embody the logic of participatory economics and reflect and manifest the preferences and world views of members of the working class, will likely lead to a participatory economy, if 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 its decision making and its general overall logic accord with seeking coordinatorism, on the one hand, or with seeking participatory economics (full classlessness, if you prefer), on the other hand.

Setting aside the above, for the moment, 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 replacing 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 requires building movements that inspire sufficient numbers of members, and that 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 diverse other improved outcomes 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 a 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 compromise 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, of course, and that is a 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 society, of how you think about actions, 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 – and they perceive the scope and roots of current injustices.

Revolution is the opposite of me first, others be damned.

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, to have liberty, and probably even to survive.


  1. avatar
    Site Administrator July 5, 2014 3:19 pm 

    Hi Ed…

    We quite agree that it helps when discussing things to be using words similarly, understandably…

    For one part of your concern, If you change key defining institutions, you are changing, as far as I can understand it, underlying social relationships – since they arise from the roles that institutions establish for people to be able to engage with others.

    You may have in mind something else – but I don’t know what it could be.

    So on that, I think we agree. But to take the word and make it apply only when there is an outcome one likes – doesn’t seem too useful to me. First, people will disagree. Second, for that we can judge the change, the revolution, and say if we like it or not…

    And, as well, ruling out as not a revolution a fundamental change because it isn’t the one that one ultimately desires – well, is the transition from feudalism to capitalism an economic revolution? Is the change from dictatorship to parliamentary democracy a revolution, and so on. Was the Russian or Chinese revolution not a revolution? These things happen. If we don’t call them a revolution, then we will simply have to give them another overarching name – but the determining observation for me is, most people, actually almost everyone, does call them revolutions, and there is no harm I can see in doing so… unless in our minds applying that label by definition means we like the thing so named – but of course, I did indicate otherwise…

    • avatar
      Ed Lytwak July 6, 2014 4:32 pm 

      Linguistically, revolution is used to describe a variety of phenomenon – i.e. agricultural revolution, Russian Revolution. I would not rule out any of these common usages as valid. That is why definitions are so important to any discussion – Chomsky is a brilliant political theorist precisely because of his understanding of linguistics and the way words are used. As with many words, there may be a number of definitions, depending on the context in which the word is used.

      By defining a word like “revolution” we seek to determine the essence of that particular use. In the political context, the essence of revolution is its structure – hierarchical (and patriarchal) or horizontal. My reading of history finds that most hierarchical revolutions have outcomes that change institutions but leave the fundamental social relationships of hierarchy and dominance in place – a changing of the patriarchal guard. Social institutions might well be described as formalized and relatively permanent sets of social relationships, solidified by collective action, which is the origin of their power. While there is some give and take, it is not the institutions that define the social relationship but the opposite. The nature of social relationships determine the kind of institutions of a particular society.

      Social relationships, whether they be hierarchical or horizontal, are fundamental to the way institutions are structured and function to organize collective action. Horizontal revolutions seek to primarily change social relationships not institutions. Once the social relationships change, institutions are “reformed,” wither away, or entirely new ones are created. Bottom line is that hierarchical revolutions cannot create horizontal institutions let alone a horizontal society. If we are to have a new horizontal society, there must be horizontal revolution.

  2. avatar
    Ed Lytwak July 5, 2014 2:28 pm 

    Finally a discussion about revolution that actually begins by defining the term. “Revolution” is like “democracy, freedom, fascism” – something that people can discuss endlessly without ever pinning down what it is. And, lacking the common ground of a definition these discussions are too often like ships passing in the night. While one might indeed endlessly discuss the definition of revolution, Michael’s definition is a good starting point – “a change in defining institutions in either of four key spheres of social life: economy, polity, culture, or gender/kinship.” I would add that revolution is changing not just “defining institutions” but the underlying social relationships. From my perspective, that would be from hierarchically structured social relationships to horizontal ones.

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