Why I Am Not a Revolutionary

Many writers and thinkers I respect a great deal argue that the extant social order — which is in bell hooks’s terms white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy — is hopelessly morally corrupt and must be ended.  I agree with this, in fact.  The inhumanity of our system is evident; thus clearly it must be changed.  However, it’s common for these people with whom I agree (Twisty Faster is a good example) to hold that because this hopelessly morally corrupt social order is extant, and being hegemonic will not only fight to preserve itself, but has access to virtually limitless resources in order to do so1, it is functionally impossible to reform, and must instead be overthrown by revolution.  And there, I do disagree.

First, I want to emphasize that it’s the conclusion I disagree with: the idea that the solution is revolution.  It is certainly true that the extant social order is very, very difficult to change.  But I reject revolution, as I’ll explain, on the grounds that it’s a cure worse than the disease.

Second, I want to make sure my use of terminology is clear.  For starters, here’s what Webster’s has to say about the words revolution and rebellion.

Main Entry:
2 a: a sudden, radical, or complete change b: a fundamental change in political organization ; especially : the overthrow or renunciation of one government or ruler and the substitution of another by the governed c: activity or movement designed to effect fundamental changes in the socioeconomic situation …

synonyms see rebellion

Main Entry:
1: opposition to one in authority or dominance
2 a: open, armed, and usually unsuccessful defiance of or resistance to an established government b: an instance of such defiance or resistance
synonyms rebellion , revolution , uprising , revolt , insurrection , mutiny mean an outbreak against authority. rebellion implies an open formidable resistance that is often unsuccessful <open rebellion against the officers>. revolution applies to a successful rebellion resulting in a major change (as in government) <a political revolution that toppled the monarchy>

Now, I’m going to use these terms slightly differently, because I think that Webster’s fails to articulate certain important connotative distinctions.

I see revolution as indicating overthrow of the entire sociopolitical order, to be wholly replaced with something else.  (For example, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Cultural Revolution.)  A rebellion, on the other hand, I consider to consist only of overthrow of the political order, or even simply replacement of the particular people in charge.  Thus, since it didn’t involve any major efforts to fundamentally change the culture of the then-colonies, what we call the American Revolution was, on my terms, not a revolution at all but a successful rebellion.  It may be that this use of the words revolution and rebellion is ill-advised and confusing, I realize; but I don’t know a better way to make the distinction I’m trying to draw here (I’m certainly open to suggestions).

The preliminaries out of the way, the content of my objection is three-fold.

First, revolutions never work.  Consider the examples I cite above: the French, Russian and Chinese Cultural Revolutions all attempted to wholly root out the existing social order and replace it in toto with a new system.  And they all produced societies that were arguably worse, or at least no better — where I provisionally define “better” as “more humane” and “worse” as “less humane;” humaneness being sort of the key to my entire argument in this post — than those they overthrew.  Violent, chaotic upheaval of the social order also generally leads to new social orders which are inimical to the purported ideals of the revolutionaries.  (This is why I make the distinction between revolutions and rebellions, by the way.  Rebellions seek a change in political power, which is a much easier thing for a society to absorb if the extant social order is not also challenged, and so, contra Webster’s above, rebellions are more likely than revolutions to be successful.  The American Revolution was one of the most successful rebellions in history.)

Second, even if a revolution were to succeed in establishing, in a lasting way, the social order the revolutionaries intended, and that new social order were indeed more humane than the ancien regime it replaced, there would still, by definition, be a transitional period of violent upheaval and struggle as the revolutionaries were in the process of destroying the old social order.  Violent upheaval and struggle, I should think I hardly need to point out, means increased suffering for all concerned.  All promotion of revolution, then, is implicitly promotion of this less-humane transitional quasi-society in the name of establishing a more-humane future society: it is a claim that the ends justify the means.  And I cannot accept such a claim; even very great ends are corrupted if wrong means are used to achieve them.  If you can imagine and articulate a revolutionary transition to a better world which is at every point more, or at least no less, humane than at the previous, then indeed that is intriguing to me, and I would like to subscribe to your newsletter.  But if you cannot answer this objection without trying to convince me that in this case the ends really do justify the means, I want no part of your revolution.

Finally, I am not a revolutionary because I do not concede that incrementalism doesn’t work. On the contrary, incrementalism is the main engine of social change.  If you can look at the society of the US now, and claim with a straight face that it is not significantly more humane than it was a hundred years ago — as the result of a century of incrementalism — you’re simply a fool.  This is of course not a claim that it’s better “enough” or that there isn’t a long way yet to go; that would be equally foolish.  Incrementalism is slow.  And I recognize that I am writing here, saying “yes, I accept that it’s slow,” from a comfortable and privileged position in society.  But think about this as long and as carefully as I may, I cannot convince myself that a hypothetical revolution would this time not mean, as they have in the past, that the same people who suffer most under the existing, unjust social order would also suffer disproportionately in the upheaval of the revolution.  Or to paraphrase Admiral Fitzwallace: incrementalism isn’t virtuous.  It’s all there is.

1 It may be argued here, I think correctly, that I wrongly impute consciousness, will, motivation to “the social order,” which is of course an abstraction, not a being, and much less a being possessed of volition.  Indeed, I cringe when people refer to “the patriarchy” as though it were a thing, some shadowy conspiracy perhaps, rather than “patriarchy,” which is a somewhat abstracted way of identifying a mode of social organization, for similar reasons.  In my defense I can offer only that I choose the active phrasing here as a kind of shorthand.



  1. I’d like to thank you for expressing something that I had neither the time nor inherent need to articulate. I will keep this in mind whenever I face down a revolutionary friend or foe in a drunken argument.

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