The Revolution is Dead, Long Live the Revolution

[By Luciano Lanza. Originally published in Italian in Volontá No. 1 (1985). Translated into Spanish and published in the Argentine journal Utopia No. 6. This translation is based upon the latter and first appeared in Autonomy No. 1 (1989).]

Let us confront the problem. Revolution is an historical process or success that radically changes the social and/or political order of a society. Anarchism is the movement which claims to effect the most radical change that history has known: the abolition of societies of domination so as to secure societies of liberty. These definitions are synthetic. Much more could be said, but precisely for this reason, they are evidence of an irrefutable reality which follows with logical indubitability: anarchism, desiring the most radical change of society, has an intrinsically revolutionary nature. The essence of anarchism is solely and exclusively revolutionary. Even more, to say that anarchism is revolutionary results in a tautology. It makes no sense to speak of a non-revolutionary anarchism, seeing that we would be referring to something else. A transformation so profound as that proposed by anarchism can only be defined by one end, and this end has a precise name: revolution.

Having made this claim, my article could end (astutely) here. Given the premise, it makes no sense to argue over whether anarchism is revolutionary or not. We are presented with a logical deduction which admits of only one conclusion. But we cannot ignore the historical moment in which the above is formulated: the whole idea, the very concept of revolution, is undergoing a profound crisis. The signals that the social logic is emitting cannot with certainty be redirected towards a revolutionary value and even the young generations appear to be interested in more than revolutionary themes and proposals.

Also, at the theoretical level, one has been witnessing for some years now a true counter-offensive by a reformism ever more equipped with convincing arguments. Stated simply, the battle line maybe summarized as follows: reformism is in a position to effect the social changes proposed by revolution, yet with less social cost, and above all with a process, though of long duration, which presents a smaller number of unknown factors, and therefore, more easily controllable.

At first sight, the thesis would appear to be fascinating and the success of “critique and publication” that is occurring seems to confirm its validity. So much so that the editorialists of the major organs of information, giving voice to widespread sentiments, can intone with tranquility the de profundis of the revolution. One example, among many that could be cited: ” … a good part of the political forces and almost all the militant intellectuals believed openly in the triumph of each subversive and/ or guerrilla movement that appeared on the face of the earth. … In a few years, that vast culture has died. And if today, in some factory, office or hall, one spoke of the class struggle, the most one would find would be a few ironic observations or an indifferent gaze. … “[1]

In a little less than ten years, in speaking of Italy, the idea of revolution has fallen from the stars to the pigsties (dalla stelle alla stalle). Those who today call themselves revolutionaries do so with an increasing feeling of discomfort and express themselves with the same state of animation as those who ten years ago declared themselves reformists. The same observation can be made about an earlier period: in 1967, a year before that legendary revolutionary moment, those who timidly presented revolutionary proposals were seen as mad, or in the better cases, as romantic dreamers. After a few months, the situation would reverse itself. And earlier still, immediately after the second world war, the social confrontation appeared to signal a revolution. Going farther back, we see so-called periods of social peace alternating with revolutionary situations. At times one thinks that preparing the revolution is the most logical thing in the world, at others it leads one simply to smile.

If the fortunes of the revolution alternate in this way, as we may discern with a quick reading of history, it probably makes sense to doubt that the contemporary situation is the end of the era of revolutions. It is certain that today the idea is also not maintained in the “firm minorities,” but this indisputable fact signifies nothing in particular. Fortunately – and at the same time unfortunately – the feeling of the people is linked to indecipherable sociological phenomena: social imagination is the product – and the producer – of a magma of interacting significations of diffuse contours, capable only of being described, not predicted. No one in 1967 was in a position to predict the developments, a few months later, of a movement of international dimensions, that would so profoundly modify the common sentiment.

Western societies, descendants – whether they like it or not – of the Enlightenment, were formed and found their legitimation precisely on the slogans (which also reflect a world vision) of the French Revolution. To this world vision -which is at the same time the social demand for a revolutionary form of institutionalization with respect to the preceding regimes -was given the first reply: representative democracy. In the course of the centuries, and above all in the last decades, democratic regimes have effectively conceded to the lower classes rights never before imagined: they have proceeded upon a less elitist distribution of wealth, though they have not been in a position to completely realize the concepts of freedom and equality.

The reformists maintain that, in any case, this historical process can develop by successive adjustments until the realization of that which gave it its origin. In the interim, forms of totalitarianism have evolved, born of the pretension to realize socialism and instead leading a great part of the world’s population into a state of servitude. Undoubtedly, this phenomenon has provided a substantial backing to the defenders of reformist democracy, who may at least present themselves as the representatives of a lesser evil. And in this manner, the debate/confrontation is diverted and perverted: defence of democracy against the barbaric totalitarianism born from the revolutionary events, while we are offered the possibility/capacity of democracy being able to completely realize liberty and equality.

The reformist position, however, is rhetorical and in large measure otiose given that after two centuries it cannot but be rejected. After the critiques formulated by the “founding fathers” of anarchism against “bourgeois democracy,” and the later historical confirmation of these critiques, a deeper analysis, which would show that the societies brought onto the historical stage by the revolution of 1 789 have not yet fulfilled their goals, is rendered unnecessary. Democracy and reformism are not in a position to take to its end the historical process that terminates in a society comprised of free and equal individuals. And it cannot do so for structural reasons, intrinsic to its very nature and internal order. The revolutionary project had an imperfect original answer in democracy: imperfect above all because it did not challenge the relation of dominator-dominated, but only modified the form and elements of its legitimation. One may conclude, therefore, that the historical epoch of revolution is very far from having been completed, as the presumptions which were at its origin remain still unachieved.

The Phantom of Liberty

If the problem of revolution is still without solution, it appears clear – given the above schematic analysis – that it is irresolvable in the form adopted hitherto: the proletarian revolution. The latter is not only obsolete but impossible, as it cannot be founded on the historical subject that could animate it.

As a result, the crisis of revolution can be seen as a crisis of a form historically assumed by the process of social transformation, and not as a crisis in the concept as such. The revolution that could realize complete liberty and equality will not, therefore, be the proletarian revolution conceived by the anarchists of the last century. Precisely on this point, the lack of imagination in the contemporary anarchist movement is evident. It is greatly divided between those loyal to the myth of the proletarian revolution, and those who are a party to a non-revolutionary anarchism. Yet both are still within the logic of proletarian revolution: the first because, even though reality has changed, they continue propounding an already surpassed formula, while the second hypothesize non-revolutionary paths because – conscious of the social modifications that have occurred – they can no longer refer to the proletariat as the subject of the revolution. It is evident that for both, the revolution is organically linked to the proletariat and that without its “historical action,” the revolution is impossible.

Both are, consequently, orphaned by a revolutionary proletariat that perhaps never existed. And it is precisely the existing social structure that evidences most clearly the problem of revolution. As there is no longer a specific class to which the revolutionary project can be referred, a reality frequently ignored or underestimated manifests itself: there has never been a class which qua class was revolutionary. It has been society that has determined (and after all that has happened, continues to determine) the revolutionary subjects who were already the conscious products of the vague, confused aspiration for another society. They were already the producers of a consciousness, of a world vision that, thanks to its existence and action, generalized itself and became the common property of different sectors of society. But it must be noted that the general tendency, historically confirmed in the proletariat, has been the quest for the perfection of the reforming process, that is, a more equitable distribution of produced wealth and an extension of decision-malting power. It is worth stating, however, that the revolution is not an accentuated and radicalized reformism: it is something totally different. And striving for it does not appear to have ever belonged to one specific class.

These observations allow for another heterodox affirmation: solely with a transversal vision of Society can we identify the potential revolutionary subjects. They are the unsatisfied, the maladapted, the unhappy, the “neurotics,” the angry, etc. Stated simply, those who want to live and not survive. This new category can be defined with an improvised formula, as the desirers of revolution.

We may conceive of the revolution, therefore, as a social change not proposed by a specific historical subject, but rather as activated by what sociologically is a non-subject. I say “activated,” but it is probably more correct to define the function of this non-subject in such a way that a contradiction, an imperfection in the society of domination, is thereby “revealed” or “indicated.” These “neurotic” subjects of domination are nothing more than the tangible expression of the social neurosis produced by an incurable paradox: the founding and legitimation of domination upon the idea of freedom.

Absolutely all modern societies are constituted with the proclamation of freedom as their basis, be they fascist, democratic, or communist regimes. One is obviously dealing with an adulterated, annihilated or restricted liberty, almost a “phantom of liberty,” yet a phantom that lives, that has sedimented in the collective unconscious and that must be directed so as to ground domination. Societies of domination thus found themselves upon their negation. A curious phenomenon, but nonetheless real. An anomaly, already with more than two centuries behind it, that justifies and legitimizes revolutionary action: to complete the process of human liberation present in social aspirations, for which reformism and democracy are insufficient. More correctly, we could affirm that the actual task of revolution is not to complete the reformist process, but to go beyond it: to transform the phantom of liberty into a concrete phenomenon.

If the demand for freedom is an element present in society, it is also necessary to recognize that an opposite sentiment exists: that which Wilhelm Reich termed the “fear of freedom.” Both historically and socially, domination and liberty appear to have legitimation. Humanity and Society are certainly not one-dimensional and within them co-exist opposing sentiments. And without controversy, one may affirm that freedom is not at all the logical end towards which society moves. Even more, from this point the revolution assumes all of its ahistorical value. By situating itself as the impossible against the necessary, as the utopian against the factual, the improvisable against the logical, it gives us an awareness of the potential of humanity. Revolution is a voluntary rupture with the continuous and heterogeneous reproduction of domination. It is voluntary and at the same time necessary. A radical change – and history has yet to demonstrate one – is possible only when an anomalous situation is produced with rapid qualitative transformations that are in a position to anaesthetize the reproduction of the fears of freedom, and that therefore substantially modify the collective imagination. Moreover, the fact that millennia of domination have not annulled the demand for freedom, and that, on the contrary, the latter has become more explicit in the last centuries, lets another anomalous fact come to the fore: to build and reproduce itself, domination must effect a great excision in the social body. As I noted not long ago, freedom can be considered the “great excision” that permits the existence of a society of domination.[2] Consequently, revolutionary action can be assimilated to an operation of psycho-social catharsis which produces in consciousness the idea of freedom displaced by domination.

Not an easy task, but one that could probably provide a new way of thinking the “next revolution to come” and which could very much differ qualitatively from those that have preceded it and the recent ones or those presently occurring in the so-called third world. The revolutions that we have known have developed before a “halted social mechanism,” that is, they have had to rapidly resolve problems derived from immediately needed reforms, concerned with a political liberalization. Or they have accommodated the institutional forms of situations already developed in the social arena. Simply stated, revolutions have had to submit to a task which should not be specific to revolution, a consequence which was previously noted.

If the lack of a coherent reform process is the favourable condition for revolution, it is also the condition that “diverts” the revolutionary process from the paths that are appropriate to it. For this reason, one must reconsider the relation of reform-revolution, in the sense that it is possible to conceive of the revolutionary project dialectically harmonized with the people. Only after the occurrence of this phenomenon can academics declare that this was signaled, that this phenomenon, united or superimposed, was predicted. Before, nothing.

The Long Winter of Reformism

The present moment can be seen, therefore, as one of the historical periods signaled by the eclipse of the revolution, to which another could follow in which the idea once again comes to the fore. One more motive, consequently, to think, hypothesize and work until social situations are produced that favour the revolutionary hypothesis. Yet what a great majority say may also be true: that the epoch of revolutions is over. Modern society, industrially advanced or post-industrial, has eliminated from context the presuppositions upon which the revolutionary project is founded.

In this case, the reformist or reforming solution would be the only path to travel: progressive adjustments that lead to a more just society. To confirm this thesis, there is a social situation that appears to negate the existence or even the hypothesis of frontal confrontations. This latter possibility is negated by the very articulation of domination over and within society; so much so that each aspect of social life is invalidated by it. There no longer exists a peasant or worker society with a culture and rules of behaviour differing from that of the “powerful.” Economic distinctions and inequalities persist, but the beliefs, myths, hopes, and expectations appear to be marked by a common value: the worker and the highly placed manager are differentiated more by a level of consumption than by a different way of seeing life. Only with an economistic approach could we individualize the existence of social classes in the advanced countries, but at a level more specifically socio-psychological, the operation becomes difficult if not impossible. Social subjects think and live their lives in similar ways, within the interior of a single imagination.

From this point of view, one can arrive at the conclusion that “classist” Society has disappeared and that the social body presents a continuity Without abrupt passages from one category to another. The vertex, seen in perspective, is in the antipodes of the base, but the different grades of the pyramid are ambiguous, uncertain, and the differences of profit and exercised power are only legible in a holistic vision. This new Situation also explains the different functions carried out by unions today. In a social context in which the “working class” is no longer a subject confronting – economically – the “capitalist-impresarial-managerial class,” there clearly results a transformation in workers’ organizations. With the absence of a class struggle that organizes and guides, unions become – are made – organisms that define the norms and procedures for the redistribution of wealth. That is, as representatives of a category that does not put into question the social order. they seek but a greater portion of the produced wealth – a more adequate recognition of the economic role they exercise. This situation also explains the rapid decline, after the first months of euphoria, of the CNT, the Spanish libertarian and revolutionary union. The CNT in the period of post-Francoism hoped to represent a class opposition that no longer existed in Spanish society.

Who Robbed the Proletariat?

That which the entire culture of the left identified as the historical subject of social transformation – the proletariat – no longer has (did it ever?) those socio-psychological connotations that were present in the last century: it has decomposed into categories and classes with absolutely no revolutionary aspiration. The disappearance of the historical subject has evidently put the culture of the left into crisis: with the collapse of the central myth of the revolutionary hypothesis there appears evermore evident signs of malady, as the revolution becomes an unrealizable dream.

The origins of the contemporary crisis of the revolution, therefore, is to be sought in the historical function assigned to the proletariat. That assignment can no longer be assumed, for the simple reason that the social subject has disappeared, has dissolved, has been transformed into something else, or more correctly, into other things, with expectations and ways of being different from what the conception of the left granted them. The problem, as can be easily intuited, is significant: either the revolutionary subject no longer exists, or it does not want to make the revolution. The logical consequence is clear: today, the revolution is impossible.

Two Hundred Years Appear To Us To Be Few …

A problem, therefore, has remained unanswered for two hundred years. It is the problem born with the French Revolution of 1789, with the watchwords that mobilized the sans-culottes, and that initiated the modem epoch in which we still live. It is the problem of liberty and equality combined with reformism; a situation of mutual alteration that sustains itself reciprocally and in which the reformist acquisitions do not mutilate the revolutionary project. On the contrary, they liberate it from the “false objectives” of past revolutions. The revolutionary process will consolidate and perfect itself precisely in the presence of a vast reformist movement.

Thus conceived the revolution is not, therefore, a final moment, the coronation of a reformist movement. It is rather a possibility always present when one generalizes the notion that reformism is a process inevitably blocked at the passage to a qualitatively different dimension, to a Society that structures itself in accord with a social meaning totally rooted in the logic of freedom.

A New Political Figure

The hypothesis of a new relation between reform and revolution consequently opens up new questions and new problems, given that the revolution is not a certainty inscribed in our immediate future. Not even the most unbridled optimism can convince me that the Society of liberty is securely present in our future. It is solely a possibility. The social consensus achieved by a serious reformism could, in effect, make a revolution more improbable. The credibility, however, that a political subject acquires from small daily conquests, from the concretization of deeds, is not contemptible nor to be underestimated.

To escape from the dream, the revolutionary project – and accordingly the movement that embodies it – must know how to express a “new sociopolitical image” capable of giving life to an action, to a process that knows how to confront the problems of everyday life and at the same time be able to activate the revolutionary impulse. A new image, therefore, which is in a position to unite in itself, though as distinct moments, reformism and revolution. It must accomplish concrete things, of even a banal daily character, while knowing how to present such actions as distinct and possible alternatives. This is easier said than done, especially given the lack of reflection on this problem, yet it is certainly not impossible.

One does not prepare for the revolution by making fiery speeches, seeing revolutionary ferment where there is only the violence of desperation. Luckily, the time for visionary speeches and self-exaltation is over. Today is the time for small steps that bring us closer to the great step. Without an intelligent pragmatic strategy and at the same time a utopian fire and determination, there will be no escape from the vicious circle that leaves the revolutionaries in an ever more accentuated social marginalization. Summarizing in a proposed slogan: to think, like anarchists, to act like libertarians. This is not to suggest camouflaged opportunistic tactics, but rather a way of being and acting that knows how to conjoin in an actual way the “libertarian gradualism” of Malatesta.

The Competition For Freedom

To conclude, what is the image of revolution that we can reasonably maintain today?

Abandoning a vision that assumes to circumscribe everything – a project, which if realized, puts an end to history – we can hypothesize a new dimension of revolution. Revolution conceived as a newly significant movement for Society; an interval, a hiatus that sanctions the end of one legitimation and opens another; a social confrontation that legitimizes to the very basis, to its last consequence, the logic of freedom, and which makes itself explicit in the liberation of all projects, all possibilities of collective human living.

The societies that will be born with the death of the societies of domination (if we know how to bring about their death), can be thought as a new, effectively pluralistic reality. Therefore, not with a single form of association, but rather with the legitimation of diverse social constructions. A pluralism so composed and heterogeneous as the human imagination Is multiform. A social articulation that gains life from diversity, as if from vital lymph.

The adoption in toto of the concept of freedom demands the reciprocal recognition of diversity. And it is precisely within this world vision that one may imagine the distinct social forms in “free competition” between each other: with the expansion of that which is believed to be more desirable. Though not necessarily: what is important, however, is that all have full recognition.

Accordingly, revolution could be seen as the beginning, as the path of a process that liberates, permitting the expression of already existing tendencies within society – though repressed, contained, conscripted by the only possible logic, that of domination – the already new and today unimaginable forms that will be born from a fully free context.


  1. [1]Guilliano Zincone, Il partito armado e finito (1984)
  2. [2]See “La rivoluzione e la sua imagine,” Volontá, No. 1 (1982).
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