The Actuality Of Revolution

Jodi Dean


For a certain North American and European left, revolution today names more a problem than it does a solution. I claim we no longer believe in revolution because we no longer adopt the perspective from which we see ourselves as revolutionaries, the perspective of the communist party. Absent this political perspective, only capitalism with its permanent crises, innovations, and transformations appears as capable of effecting revolutionary change. Fortunately, the crowds and demonstrations of the last decade suggest that a new party perspective may be emerging. The collective practices and intensities exhibited in current struggles, as well as the limits against which these struggles falter, are renewing the salience of the party question on the left. As people experience their collective power, the desire for something like a party is re-emerging, a party as the organized site of our belief in revolution.

In this essay I focus on two, seemingly opposed, approaches to organization and revolution. My argument begins with Georg Lukács’ account of the Leninist innovation: the realization that the core of historical materialism is the actuality of the proletarian revolution. This enables me to draw out the articulation of revolution, proletariat, party, and state central to the event of 1917. The force of this articulation comes from anticipation, the capacity of the future revolution to coordinate the actions that will bring it about. I then turn to our present setting wherein the links between revolution, proletariat, party, and state have dissolved. Here I engage Michael Hardt’s and Antonio Negri’s discussion in Commonwealth, the third volume of their influential Empire trilogy. For Hardt and Negri, revolution involves biopolitics rather than the state, democracy rather than the party, and identity rather than the proletariat. The problem with their account is that it precludes the temporality that would produce revolutionary practice. Revolution is present as potential, a possibility that flows out of what we are already doing. Hardt and Negri view revolution as a continuation of the practices of biopolitical production and capitalism’s own revolutionary innovation. There is no revolutionary break, no negation of some practices, trajectories, and potentials in the forwarding of emancipatory egalitarian aims. Theirs is thus a ‘revolution without revolution’. In contrast, the future projected in Lenin’s assumption of the actuality of revolution coordinates political action to bring revolution into being. The party anticipates the revolution, materializing the belief that makes revolution possible not just as an outflow or overflow of present possibilities, but as an effect of the negation of some practices, trajectories, and potentials and the forcing of others.

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