I like to fancy myself a revolutionary… blah blah what does that even mean? I’d like to suggest for a minute that maybe the words revolution and revolutionary have been mostly emptied of their contents; that their meanings are more than slightly ambiguous, even among their proponents (I’m talking specifically within the United States); that they serve largely as references to inspirational historical moments and as signifiers of belonging (i.e. “getting it”) within some radical groups, organizations and subcultures — much more than these words presently (again, in the US) suggest an instructive path or framework for social, economic and political change.
There. I said it. The danger of questioning a signifier of belonging is that it can call into question one’s own belonging in the group where the signifier is operating!
So, when we say revolution, I think we’re mostly vaguely refering to the overthrow of governments — and in specific historical circumstances. Social justice-directed revolutions have overthrown monarchies, feudal systems, and colonial governments. I don’t know of a single Left-direction revolution in this sense (i.e. the overthrow of a government) that has been accomplished in a representative democracy (even in really shitty representative democracies). The only forces I can think of that have overthrown elected governments in the past century or so have been rightwing reactionary forces, usually through the form of a military coup. There have been plenty of those! If you can think of an exception to this, I’m all ears.
The best defense I’ve heard of current usage of the word revolutionary (again, in our context — I’m not talking about Tunisia or Egypt) has gone something like this: “Revolution is about overthrowing the current order. Presently, we have an oppressive plutocratic / capitalist order. We are working to overthrow that regime.” Great, I’m down with that, and I’ll happily keep sporting this signifier with this intended meaning. Still, it really doesn’t do much for me anymore…
What am I getting at? Why does this matter?
It matters because, as an ambiguous signifier of belonging, the word revolutionary can privilege certain tactics and approaches over others. As a label, revolutionary is meant to distinguish a change agent within a broader field of change agents — to marginally differentiate oneself and one’s group within a broader alignment of groups working for change — perhaps even more than it is meant to distinguish us from all-out defenders of the status quo. As such, its posed opposite is less the status quo than it is a reform approach to change. In extreme form, this tendency lumps “reformists” together with the status quo and its defenders — into one big inpenetrable monolith that we’re unequivocally against. It sets up a false dichotomy of revolution vs. reform — a framework that has some merit, but that can be paralyzing without further clarification and nuance. Furthermore, as an ambiguous signifier of belonging (in certain radical subcultures), group members may be inclined to do things, to say things, even to wear things that seem “revolutionary”, and to distance themselves from anything that reeks of “reformism”. In extreme form this leads to the idea of revolution as apocalypse: what is needed is a cataclysmic, nevermind catastrophic, reset; any improvement in the situations of real people is dismissed, maybe even denounced, as prolonging the life of the “system”.
I’m not suggesting that everyone who uses the word revolution is guilty of any of the above. After all, advertisers love to brand the shit they’re selling as “revolutionary” too.