George Lawson’s Anatomies of Revolution is a brilliant book: cleverly conceived, beautifully crafted, and pretty much the state of the art with reference to revolution. Lawson judiciously walks us through where we’ve been, are, and proffers a glimpse of where we must go, but it is by situating us in the global, not simply nesting it in, but actually weaving it in, and revolution within the pantheon of socio-political change that he opens up whole new dimensions to our great good fortune. Smart, sophisticated, clever, and invaluable…If you know him, you can hear him now, “yeah, yeah, yeah….”
So, I’ve got a few thoughts worth what they cost you. But first a few caveats. While academics debate the utility of the term revolution, billions of people around the world hear, use, and understand the term broadly and specifically, in ways that have meaning and can be used to make meaning in the context of the material and ideological conditions of their everyday lives. More on this to come. Allow me to note that this text bears the predictable markings of the capitalist inflected English language (as above) and hence is redolent of racist, sexist, classist, gendered patriarchy. Finally, I have tried to avoid the sin Colin Beck refers to as honorific citation which ineluctably reproduces the past to position, situate, and prove we belong, obscuring more than it illuminates. It also reinforces the insufferable Eurowhiteness and maleness of much of the comparative revolution and related literatures and the stultifying effect and affect we have had.
Not long before the Arab Uprising began, Jack Goldstone presciently called on us to rethink revolution and integrate “origins, processes, and outcomes.” A few years later Lawson promised “to extend the insights offered by fourth generation approaches in order to provide more robust theoretical foundations for the study of contemporary revolutionary episodes” and this book does so and none too soon. If I am right that revolution is “struggles for justice, dignity, human rights, labor rights and collective and engaged governance with representation and resources available to all, premised on a radical inclusivity beyond anything yet realized,” we find ourselves at a moment when and where revolutionary imaginaries, sentiments, moments, and situations, abound, as well they should given the extent to which late capitalism, globalization, and neoliberalism have proven inimical to the hopes and dreams and desires of the immense majority of humanity.
In 2015 Lawson bracingly declared “there are two main ways of approaching the study of revolution in the contemporary world—and they are both wrong.” These assemblages were “popular protest, campaign against inequality, and technological breakthrough” and the “apparently contradictory, meme—that revolutions are irrelevant to a world in which the big issues of governance and economic development have been settled.” It was clear, per Daniel Ritter, our analyses needed to evolve; Lawson’s Anatomies of Revolution is his answer to that challenge.
This book is many things, not least perhaps the definitive “fourth generation” statement and Beck may be correct it is a eulogy of sorts. But it also seems to me a profound jumping off point for where we go and what we do next, or so I choose to read it. Not a eulogy but an opening, a beginning…or is it Antonio Gramsci’s interregnum? To that end, here are a few thoughts….
Are there ages of revolution or is revolution—not revolutions, mind you—found throughout human history? We may usefully—more capitalist inflected language—speak of periods (eras? moments?) in which revolution seems more possible, more likely (ages of upheaval, permissible international systems—but are there ever “permissible” international systems?). That said, revolution, in a sense as both “real” and meaningful to the participants and legible to academics who care to look can be found everywhere and everywhen. As recently as 20 years ago it was fashionable to declare revolution dead, a 200-year run from 1789 to 1989 over (and none too soon—how had we gone from the glories of France to Grenada, Iran, and Nicaragua). This of course ignores Mexico’s 1994 Zapatista uprising, Indonesia, Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, the Second Intifada, various “color revolutions,” and dozens of others: the “Tulip Revolution” in Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon’s “Cedar Revolution,” Myanmar’s “Saffron Revolution,” Iran’s “Green Revolution,” Latvia’s “Penguin Revolution,” itself heir to the “Umbrella Revolution” or Iceland’s “Kitchenware Revolution.” The Arab Uprising lit up the entire Mediterranean and resonated in Sub-Saharan Africa, North America, South America, Central, South, and Southwest Asia. If these most of instances may not be similar to the “big, large, huge” revolutionary processes associated with 1789-1989, perhaps we might construe it as a “little revolutionary age,” the events and processes no less meaningful for those involved, the implications and ramifications almost certainly not yet fully realized or recognized….a few weeks ago I was surprised to find myself on the 10th anniversary speaking to an online audience of hundreds about the Syrian revolution and told them, stealing an almost certainly apocryphal and it now occurs to me orientalist quip from China’s Zhou Enali in 1972 with regard to the importance of France’s 1789 revolution, it was too soon to tell. The revolutions listed here (and others) happened, matter, and will for years. With apologies to Mary Tyler Moore, or at least her theme song, revolution’s all around and people are gonna make it, after all. Never thought I’d find a use for that.
Secondly, even if the days of beards, bombs and bullets we (still) associate with revolution seem mostly past, there are still people literally afoot in mountains, fields, and jungles. This is in no way to ignore the increase in instances of unarmed, non-violent (a fraught concept, not least when predicated on state managers and their minions use of violence), or cyber-weapons which a set of scholars are considering. Nor does much seem to be gained by reconceiving “failed” revolutions, reinforcing an unfortunate Eurocentricity/Global North-ism that haunts the field(s). This is not to deny Lawson’s point that contemporary revolutions owe a debt to the legacies of 1905, 1848, and 1776 (more, he wagers, than to 1789 or 1917). But there are so many more local legacies that matter more and success or failure a poor, perhaps meaningless, measure of revolution. What I want to know is do they linger? Are their stories told, symbols left, dates and names remembered? e.g. as artefacts that become woven, not nested, into the fabric of society in often daring acts of bricolage?
Finally, if revolutions are “social facts” dependent on human consensus and consciousness to imbue them with meaning, then there is perhaps a “folksonomy” of revolution, a collective, user-generated, non-hierarchical, bottom up taxonomy, produced both by those seeking to change their worlds but also those resisting. Then revolution is social upheaval meant to produce striking, broad, meaningful change in the material and ideological conditions of people’s everyday lives. There is a widely held sense that we know revolution when we see it; opening revolution to the everyday seems fruitful…yet caution is in order: revolutionary multiplicities extending infinitely in every possible direction and dimension all at once risks rendering the concept an empty signifier, as I may be doing here. My version, should we need yet another, is that revolution is socio-political, economic, and symbolic upheaval meant to produce striking, broad, and meaningful change in the material and ideological conditions of people’s everyday lives; real people in the real world making real decisions that really matter. John Foran’s recent call for a shift in terminology to “movements for radical social change (a term more apt for this century’s great social movements than revolution)” merits note. But Lawson offers, perhaps as the fourth generation’s ultimate statement, revolution as “a collective mobilisation that attempts to quickly and forcibly overthrow an existing regime in order to transform political, economic, and symbolic relations” and his intersocial, historicized, multifaceted (he succinctly summarized this elsewhere as “revolution, therefore, is not a single thing”). This is a comprehensive and powerful academic tool which at least nods to actually existing revolution.
Anatomies of Revolution demands our analyses need to evolve, and rightly so. Revolutions are occurring and new technology will change surprisingly little about how such events or processes “begin,” proceed and “end,” concepts that seem oddly out of place in this context. If highly visible, especially in the global north, the role and impact of social media seems to have often been exaggerated or misunderstood, in particular relative to other means and methods of information sharing and deep-rooted causes of popular discontent. Many of these uprisings have been multifaceted, with demands ranging from the specific (Algeria’s 2019-20 Revolution of Smiles) to general (France’s 2018-today “Yellow Vests” movement) to almost none (Spain’s 2011-5 indignados). What animate almost all are demands for respect and sweeping change in the relations between elite dominated states and the people, what Sidney Tarrow invoking Charles Tilly described as “we are here” movements. We, us, are, per the modern-day Zapatistas, here, now, today, and we matter. What could be more revolutionary than that?[With much appreciation to Ayşe Zarakol].