Preface

At New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, students construct their own concentrations. There, I studied the French Revolution and many of the subsequent political revolutions which were in some way descendant.

About the Gallatin Rationale

The capstone of my work at Gallatin was the Colloquium, a long-standing tradition: two-hours of conversation between me and a panel of faculty in which we discussed two documents compiled at the culmination of my Gallatin studies, the Rationale and Booklist. Mine are both below.

If you’re curious about what I studied at NYU, this might help shed some light—but, by design, it may also raise just as many questions. I’d love to hear your comments.

It’s 2,632 words long, or an estimated 11–minute read.

 

Legitimacy and the Revolution

I started off as a designer of posters. When they asked me to fill out that half sheet of copy paper at freshman orientation in June, I listed on the line asking about my interests and curiosities “graphic design and communications”. Having primarily considered Emerson, RISD, and SCAD as alternatives to Gallatin, these were hardly strange expectations to have. “Communication” on its own is rather dull, it turned out. What interested me was the perhaps more honest goal of much modern communication: influencing others. Ally yourself with these ideals and this brand. Buy our product. Feel this emotion.

It’s within this milieu that I studied the Cuban Revolution, and I got to thinking: if I turned to a stranger on the subway and tried to get her to join me in revolution against the U.S. government, what would I need to say in order to succeed? What circumstances would be most accommodating to my plea—in her daily life, my presentation and cause, the events ongoing in the greater world—and which circumstances most difficult, I wondered. How would I go about convincing someone to join a revolution?

It would be a hard task, I judged, and what was portrayed as Occupy Wall Street’s difficulties gaining traction at the time didn’t do much to dissuade the judgement. And yet—Castro managed it, and before him Mao, and before him Lenin, and many more besides. Recently, “revolution has become one of the most common occurrences in the political life of nearly all countries and continents,” wrote Arendt in 1963, and the observation is certainly no less true today (On Revolution 208). I was left with a sense that revolutions seem to require audacity, the boldness necessary to endeavor in constituting the world anew—a boldness difficult to imagine on the uptown 6 train—and Arendt’s investigation of it in particular fascinated me. “Revolutions,” she writes, “are the only political events which confront us directly and inevitably with the problem of beginning” (11). On what rock to build the revolution? More directly, why is the revolution more worthy than the incumbent? In whose name does the revolution occur, and why do their names matter? How does a revolution legitimate itself?

Before we even start, we’d be wise to consider what it means to call something a revolution. Arendt argues that, though “medieval and post-medieval theory knew of legitimate rebellion,” the task of fundamentally challenging the established order of things—not mere individuals in particular roles, but the system itself—was novel in the eighteenth century (30). She points out that revolution originally meant restoration, and indeed the word itself in English even today has what would appear to be conflicting meanings: (i) circular movement around a point, a cyclical recurrence, and (ii) change and upheaval, a dramatic change in the way something works. One definition indicates a consistency—to start, move around a point, and then return to the point of origin—that is purposefully and importantly absent from the second. When we label a movement a revolution, which definition of the term do we envision, and what expectations of the surrounding or ensuing discourse do the selected definition belie?

Settling on one of these meanings hardly lessens the breadth of the word’s intricacy. In the conversations of the technology world, I frequently hear that the iPhone was a revolution in mobile computing. But so was the violent purging of ethnic minorities and those perceived to be anti-communist an indelible component of the Cultural Revolution in China. To call the iPhone a revolutionary object seems to often suppose a self-explanatory goodness: because the iPhone was a dramatic change in the way mobile computing worked, the logic goes, it was revolutionary, and because it was a revolution it was good. “The iPhone was a revolution” can stand on its own as indication of admirable qualities in the device itself and the company behind it. The term “Cultural Revolution,” however, brings about complex and very different meanings to a political scientist, to someone who lived in China from 1966 to 1976, and to a person born in China in the 1990s. To suppose a self-explanatory goodness or admiration here would be a gross oversight, and in that vein we can project the intricate problems that come from using this one term in such varied situations out from our two examples here to the many multitude of daily uses. In other words, talking about revolutions is hard, in no small part because the word is overstuffed with meaning and expectation.

Even if we agree to limit ourselves to the strictly political idea of revolution, setting aside its use in technology and economics, the word poses problems of clarity, which may and I argue often do have bearing on what it means to call something a revolution. The first French Revolution is said to have taken place from 1789–1799, and yet the revolutionary thoughts being discussed at the meetings of the Assemblée Nationale in the summer of 1789—which was planning to work alongside the monarchy—were very different thoughts from those of the violently anti-royalist Terror in 1794. Was this really a single continuous movement? To call it the “French” Revolution, too, requires a dramatic oversimplification of history: almost equally salient a conversation as the role of absolute monarchy and individual rights was the conversation surrounding the role of Paris as opposed to the other départements in the governance of France. A whole counterrevolutionary war was fought in the royalist stronghold of Vendée from 1793–1796, a fact that disappears completely when we speak of the “French” Revolution, imagining a certainty of nationhood that didn’t yet exist. To whom does “French” refer, and at what time? What else is lost by these convenient but ultimately arbitrary delineations of time and place?

It is tempting to talk about the American Revolution of 1775–1783 and the French Revolution of 1789–1799, but these dates obscure the underlying trend: in the pages of widely-circulated books and the pamphlets of the American Colonies and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, white and wealthy men were deciding that the state derived its legitimacy from the consent of the people. When they grew displeased by their monarchs, they usurped what had been before an inviolable authority, and they did so in the name of the people. This poses at least one problem: who said they could act on behalf of the people?

In France, the Tiers État—the political class of educated, predominantly wealthy, bourgeois men who lacked noble titles—declared themselves independent from the États Généraux in June 1789. The Estates-General was a purely advisory body, with no real power, and after being locked out of the assembly room at Versailles the incensed Third Estate removed itself to the tennis court, where they famously swore that given their duty to go about “reconstituting public order” and “upholding the principles of monarchy,” they would never disband until they had established a constitution for France. From no real power, they chose to band together and create power for themselves. The document they composed a few months later, La Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen, represented a long-brewing conversation about the rights of man and those rights’ political potential, claiming that sovereign authority comes directly from la nation—not from God, nor the king himself, but the nation. Yet do these Third Estatesmen and their peers, self-styled the Assemblée Nationale, represent the interests of all the nation? How do we need to define public order in order to agree that these men had any authority to reconstitute it, and does that definition align with the one they held in their minds at the time?

Centuries ago, Socrates described a logical state in which the most educated, most wise philosophers ruled because they were the most reasonable. For Socrates, in this logically constructed nation, the strength of the commonwealth depended on every part of society performing its respective duties, and no one else’s. He calls the perfect balance between all components justice, and to upset that perfect balance would be to destroy the very state itself (Plato Republic).

Extending the Socratic model of the social contract in the face of seventeenth century civil war in England, Hobbes wrote the Leviathan, doubling down on the politology he had established in De Cive. For Hobbes, the sovereign maintains order through unimpeachable, everlasting authority. The title of De Cive’s Chapter XII, Section 1—“That the judging of good and evil belongs to private persons is a seditious opinion”—says a lot about the Hobbesian conception of a commonwealth, with the people coming together to form civil society because it is preferable to the cruel and chaotic state of nature, but after performing that one act of metaphorical consent the body politic is to never again supersede the authority of the head of state (243). In France, the absolute monarchy practiced by the Bourbons under the Ancien Régime projected a very similar tone of authority in which the body politic was forever subject to the supreme authority of the sovereign, and from that authority they derived their legitimacy. At least until June 1789, when the Third Estate demonstrated that it agreed more strongly with Locke.

On what grounds did the Third Estate base its decision to secede from the Estates-General and to write a new constitution for France? To execute the sovereign—materially, to behead the body of Louis XVI in 1793, and more symbolically to wrest the body of the nation from its sovereign and establish a new order in its place, a process begun by the Third Estate—is more than seditious; it is tantamount to the destruction of civil society itself, a return to the terrible state of nature, the death of justice. What gave them the right to do such a thing?

“Justifications for wars…are quite old,” Arendt told me way back in her introduction to my fascination with revolution. “Among their obvious prerequisites is the conviction that political relations in their normal course do not fall under the sway of violence” (2). Defending his decision to abide by what many would characterize as an unfair death sentence, Socrates asks, “Do you think it possible for a city not to be destroyed if the verdicts of its courts have no force but are nullified and set at naught by private individuals?” (“Crito” 50b). Almost as if in answer, the conversations surrounding revolution come to involve strong and purposeful notions of destruction—violence. Advocates for the use of revolutionary violence are numerous: Robespierre, Marx, Lenin, Mao, Guevara, Newton and Seale, Mandela. For these leaders, special circumstances necessitate the use of violent means to achieve revolutionary ends, from which marches the question, violence against whom? If the existing authority is so intransigent that the coup proposed requires violence, logic wants me to ask whether consent is the most accurate provenance of the revolution’s legitimacy. Can a violent revolution predicate itself on representing the revocation of consent for the state that precedes it if bloodshed is needed to prove the point? At what point are the people not consenting any more?

Marx is often quoted in defense of violent revolution, writing that “force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one” (Capital 436). He was in fact referring to the development of capitalism through colonial means, but Lenin quotes Engels making the same argument in a more general sense, and further argues heartily that the complete and painful eradication of the bourgeois state apparatus cannot but take place at the hand of great violence (State and Revolution 19–21). With Lenin, violence becomes explicitly necessary because the project is not one of bringing the preexisting desires of the populace in line with a government well suited for them, as the American and French Revolutions seem to be cast, but to materially and forcibly change the nation into something else entirely, something explicitly proletariat-controlled. What does that shift reveal about the changing expectations of revolutionary events? And, now that revolution takes on some of the characteristics of a civil war, my question demands anew: what legitimates such an action?

Marx argues that the French Revolution was still a fundamentally bourgeois revolution, moving property beyond feudal control, a step in the right direction, but not into proletarian control, thus stopping short of a true communist revolution (“Manifesto” 484). Instead, Marx argues, the revolution should result in the abolition of all private property; the French Revolution did not do this, and never aspired to. And yet, is it difficult to see a thread of continuity here, in which revolutionary legitimacy lies in the return of authority from an oligarchic minority to a greater power located more broadly in la nation? In Lenin’s casting of Marxism, the state is violently and forcibly appropriated by the proletariat, whose resulting dictatorship then withers away. For Lenin, there is to be no state, only the people—an idea the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen seems to express in rudimentary form by locating the legitimacy of the state in the nation. Are Marx and the Declaration really that different then? In speaking for the nation, does the revolution achieve legitimacy? To which I counter, what authorizes these men—and poor Olympe de Gouges be damned, they are all men—to speak for the nation, for the people? 

Over the course of the nineteenth century, the revolutionary voice continues to evolve. Benicio del Toro, playing Che in Soderbergh’s 2008 biopic of the revolutionary leader, observes Cuban revolutionary forces marching victorious towards Havana and sagely cautions the camera, “The war is over. The revolution begins tomorrow.” It’s a fair lyrical expression of the sentiment at the time. On the same day in history, entering Havana to a fled Batista, control of Cuba waiting there for him, Castro announced via radio: “I want to tell the people and the mothers of Cuba that I will resolve all problems without shedding a drop of blood… The military battles have ended. Tomorrow we will have another day of peace like all the rest” (342–3). Thus, how do we conceive of revolution’s end? By the middle of the twentieth century, doesn’t it seem that revolution isn’t intended to have an end at all, as a campaign of war does, but instead to more fundamentally affect the fabric of society? What can we make of Marx and Engels’s request for violence, Lenin’s implementation of it, and Castro’s oath to end it?

Che develops Marx and Lenin’s arguments for a proletariat-lead revolution into the more practical notion of the revolutionary “vanguard”, but does that idea of a small group acting to bring about revolutionary change not challenge the very concepts of legitimacy derived from la nation and Marx’s insistence that the effort be communal and Castro’s attempt to dissociate the revolution from incessant violence (“Man and Socialism” 372)?

To be sure, the revolutionary-sounding documents of 1789 and the height of the Committee for Public Safety’s power in 1794 have more in common with each other than they do with, say, the questions of taxation that dominated 1787 or the fall of Napoleon in 1814. When I deemed these dates “arbitrary” I did not here intended to suggest they are useless, no, but rather to ask what is given up by such a telling of history. Napoleon’s meritocracy—La carrière ouverte aux talents!—came to be in the 1800s and realized ideals of inter-class equality first addressed by the Revolution, but no, the official record reads, the Revolution ended in 1799 and that’s that. I posit that it seems unfair to stop my investigation there.

 

Booklist

Ancient, Medieval & Renaissance Classics

(Pre-seventeenth century)

Aristotle. The Politics. Ed. Trevor J. Saunders. Trans. T. Sinclair and Trevor J. Saunders. London: Penguin, 1981. Print.

Euripides. Bacchae. Trans. Stephen J. Esposito. Newburyport: Focus Publishing, 1998. Print.

Hobbes, Thomas. Man and Citizen. Trans. Charles T. Wood, T.S.K. Scott-Craig, and Bernard Gert. Ed. Bernard Gert. Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1991. Print.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince and the Discourses. New York: The Modern Library, 1950. Print.

Plato. “Crito.” Five Dialogues. 2nd ed. Trans. G.M.A. Grube and John M. Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2002. 45–57. Print.

--. The Republic of Plato. Trans. Francis Macdonald Cornford. London: Oxford UP, 1941. Print.

Sophocles. Antigone. Trans. Don Taylor. Edinburgh: A&C Black, 2013. Print.

Modern Humanities

(Post-Seventeenth Century)

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Lectures on the Philosophy of World History: Introduction. Trans. H. B. Nisbet. Cambridge: Cambridge UP: 1975. Print.

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration. Ed. Ian Shapiro. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003.  Print.

Marx, Karl. “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” The Marx-Engels Reader. Ed. Robert C. Tucker. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978. 594–617. Print.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. “Manifesto of the Communist Party.” The Marx-Engels Reader. Ed. Robert C. Tucker. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978. 469–500. Print.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Basic Political Writings. Trans./ed. Donald A. Cress. Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987. Print.

Modern Social & Natural Sciences

(Post-seventeenth Century)

Austin, J. L. How To Do Things With Words. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962. Print.

Lenin, Vladimir Ilich. The State and Revolution. Trans. Robert Service. New York: Penguin, 1992. Print.

Marx, Karl. “Capital: Volume One.” The Marx-Engels Reader. Ed. Robert C. Tucker. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978. 294–438. Print.

Wolin, Sheldon S. “Norm and Form: The Constitutionalizing of Democracy.” Athenian Political Thoughts and the Reconstruction of American Democracy. Eds. J. Peter Euben, John R. Wollach, and Josiah Ober. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994. Print.

Area of Concentration

(Any Era)

Arendt, Hannah. On Revolution. London: Penguin, 1963. Print.

Castro, Fidel. “Castro Announces the Revolution.” Trans. Foreign Broadcast Information Service. The Cuba Reader. Eds. Aviva Chomsky, Barry Carr, and Pamela Maria Smorkaloff. Durham: Duke UP, 2003. 341–343. Print.

--. “History Will Absolve Me.”  Trans. Margarita Zimmerman. The Cuba Reader. Eds. Aviva Chomsky, Barry Carr, and Pamela Maria Smorkaloff. Durham: Duke UP, 2003. 306–314. Print.

Che. Dir. Steven Soderbergh. Perf. Benicio del Toro. IFC Films, 2008. Film.

“Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen de 1789.” Droit français. Legifrance.gouv.fr, n.d. Web. 2 Feb. 2015. Web.

 

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. On Revolution. London: Penguin, 1963. Print.

Austin, J. L. How To Do Things With Words. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962. Print.

Castro, Fidel. “Castro Announces the Revolution.” Trans. Foreign Broadcast Information Service. The Cuba Reader. Eds. Aviva Chomsky, Barry Carr, and Pamela Maria Smorkaloff. Durham: Duke UP, 2003. 341–343. Print.

Che. Dir. Steven Soderbergh. Perf. Benicio del Toro. IFC Films, 2008. Film.

“Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen de 1789.” Droit français. Legifrance.gouv.fr, n.d. Web. 2 Feb. 2015.

Guevara, Ernesto ‘Che’. “Man and Socialism.” The Cuba Reader. Eds. Aviva Chomsky, Barry Carr, and Pamela Maria Smorkaloff. Durham: Duke UP, 2003. 370–374. Print.

Hobbes, Thomas. Man and Citizen. Ed. Bernard Gett. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1991. Print.

Lenin, Vladimir Ilich. The State and Revolution. Trans. Robert Service. New York: Penguin, 1992. Print.

Marx, Karl. “Capital: Volume One.” The Marx-Engels Reader. Ed. Robert C. Tucker. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978. 294–438. Print.

--. “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” The Marx-Engels Reader. Ed. Robert C. Tucker. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978. 594–617. Print.

--. “Manifesto of the Communist Party.” The Marx-Engels Reader. Ed. Robert C. Tucker. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978. 469–500. Print.

Plato. “Crito.” Five Dialogues. 2nd ed. Trans. G.M.A. Grube and John M. Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2002. 45–57. Print.

--. The Republic of Plato. Trans. Francis Macdonald Cornford. London: Oxford UP, 1941. Print.