The Underdogs

It’s a familiar story: the Revolution starts with high ideals and good intentions, but soon goes sour; it takes on a logic of its own, of interminable infighting and violence for the sake of violence. Those who originally railed against corruption become corrupt themselves; things end up as bad if not worse than they were at first. At the end we’re left doubting that so much sacrifice and pain was worth it. It’s the story told, of the Russian Revolution, in Orwell’s Animal Farm, in which ultimately “the creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

On the one hand, this is the revolution as senseless expenditure, as upset without outcome. In the words of Jacques Mallet du Pan: “la révolution dévore ses enfants,” the Revolution devours its children. On the other hand, this is equally the revolution as return, as full circle of the wheel of history. In the words of The Who: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” This from a song with the title “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Yet for some reason the impulse to revolt lives on–the Arab Spring might be just the latest example–despite the fact that so many revolutions seem to take a wrong turn somewhere.

The Underdogs

Hence the dilemma for a book such as Mariano Azuela’s The Underdogs (Los de abajo), which provides this narrative for the Mexican Revolution, focusing on the Northern front in the years 1913 to 1915. It has to account for the revolution’s causes, the reasons why people might have believed that only violence could transform their circumstances, as well as its effects, a world in which all sense of cause or effect has disappeared, in which violence has become its own raison d’être. As one character puts it near the end of the novel, considering which side to choose among the various warring factions: “Villa? Obregón? Carranza? X . . . Y . . . Z! What do I care? I love the revolution like I love an erupting volcano! I love the volcano because it is a volcano and the revolution because it is the revolution!” (124).

One answer to this problem is to point out that, ultimately, revolutions perhaps have very little to do with politics. At least, they have little to do with politics if we conceive of the political in terms of the making of decisions, of choosing between options. Demetrio Macías, the main character of The Underdogs, a man who the book portrays rising through the ranks of the revolutionary forces, actively refuses the right to decide when he, too, is asked “on which side are you going to fight?” His response is to “[bury] his hands in his hair, [scratch] his head” and reply “Don’t ask me questions like that [. . .]. All ya have to do is say: ‘Demetrio, you do such and such,’ and I’ll do it, end of story!” (116). So it is not that the revolution is (to adapt a phrase from Carl von Clausewitz) “the continuation of politics by other means.” If anything, the revolution is actively anti-political, the expression of a dissatisfaction with the limits of the political.

It is not that politics is absent from The Underdogs. It figures primarily through the novel’s other main character, Luis Cervantes, a deserter from the federalist side who attaches himself to Macías’s gang early on, in large part (we are told) for lofty reasons: “the suffering and misery of the dispossessed,” whose cause he sees “as the sublime cause of an oppressed people demanding justice, pure justice” (22). Throughout the novel he seeks to translate the revolutionary violence into lofty sentiment. For instance, as he puts it to Macías: “You do not yet understand your true, your high, your most noble mission. [. . .] You have risen up against the cacique system itself, the system that is devastating the entire nation. We are constitutive pieces of a great social movement that will lead to the exaltation of our motherland.” To which Macías himself responds: “Go on, bring us two more beers” (42).

So politics is disdained and seen as almost entirely irrelevant. Ultimately, Cervantes abandons the revolutionaries, leaving behind only a note encouraging one of them to come north of the border, open a Mexican restaurant, “and in a very short time we can be rich” (120). Yes, he opts out of the corruption and the ceaseless violence. Yes, as a result, he’s the only one to survive to the novel’s final pages. But that’s precisely because, however much he tries to articulate the spirit of the revolution, it is clear at every moment that he misses it entirely. The revolution forever escapes its political articulation. And perhaps that goes as much for its hackneyed narrativization in The Underdogs itself.

Viva Zapata!

Viva Zapata! poster

Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata! tells us that the fundamental conflict at the heart of the Mexican Revolution concerns land. Indeed, “land and liberty” (tierra y libertad) has been the banner under which has historically erupted, in Mexico as in many other agrarian societies. But this is a conflict also between the countryside and the city, and between different temporalities. The film opens with a delegation of peasants, from the southern state of Morelos, disarming themselves as they enter the national palace in Mexico City to petition President Porfirio Díaz over a land dispute. By giving up their machetes they are also handing over their instruments of labour, but in any case they are already unable to work as the local landowners have used barbed wire to fence off the fields where they have historically harvested their crops. Díaz, paternalistically addressing them as his “children,” tries to fob them off by telling them to be patient, to verify their boundaries and settle things through the courts. “Believe me, these matters take time,” he tells them. All but one of the group is pacified by the president’s vague reassurances. “We make our tortillas our of corn, not patience,” he declares. “What is your name?” asks Díaz, riled up. “Emiliano Zapata,” comes the answer. Díaz circles the name on a piece of paper in front of him, and we have all the clues we need for the rest of the movie: Zapata is different, a man to watch, who will not bow down to authority.

Much later comes a scene in which the roles are reversed. We are in the same office, but Díaz has been overthrown and now it is Zapata who is, temporarily at least, in the position of the president, receiving petitions. In comes another delegation of men from Morelos, seeking to resolve a problem with their land. The complaint is against Zapata’s brother, who has taken over a hacienda whose lands had been redistributed. Now it is Zapata’s turn to prevaricate: “When I have time, I’ll look into it.” Again, however, there’s one man among the petitioning group who won’t put up with such delays: “These men haven’t got time,” he calls out. “The land can’t wait [. . .] and stomachs can’t wait either.” To which now it is Zapata who bellows: “What’s your name?” But on turning to a list similar to Díaz’s, about to circle the offending man’s name, he realizes the situation in which he has found himself, repeating the sins of the past. So Zapata, the true revolutionary, tears up the paper and angrily reclaims his gun and ammunition belt, to head back to Morelos with the men and sort out the problem straightaway.

Revolutions tend to repeat, the film suggests, but something always escapes. Towards the very end of the movie, as we suspect that Zapata is doomed, about to be swallowed up by the very revolution that he helped to start, Zapata’s wife, Josefa, asks him: “After all the fighting and the death, what has really changed?” To which Zapata responds: “They’ve changed. That’s how things really change: slowly, through people. They don’t need me any more.” “They have to be led,” Josefa says. “Yes, but by each other,” her husband replies. “A strong man makes a week people. Strong people don’t need a strong man.” This, however, is the basic tension around which the film revolves: it wants both to glorify (even romanticize) Zapata, and yet also to suggest that it’s the glorification of men like him that leads the revolution to fail. Indeed, Zapata is paradoxically glorified precisely in so far as he consistently refuses adulation. And so ultimately Zapata has to die, shot down in a hail of bullets, so that something of his spirit escapes, here (rather clumsily) portrayed through his white horse which is scene, as the closing credits roll, wild and free on a rocky crag.

Meanwhile, the more basic contradiction that this movie has to negotiate is that it sets out simultaneously to praise and to damn the very idea of revolution. The people’s cause is portrayed and eminently just, and it is clear that the normal political channels of protest or redress are blocked. What’s more, the film lauds Zapata’s instinct for direct action, his taking sides with the temporality of immediacy and against the endless procrastination imposed by bureaucracies of every stripe. (Surely something of this position-taking has to do with the medium itself: Hollywood always prefers men of action to bureaucrats, however much it is run by the latter rather than the former.) But we are not to take the obvious lessons from this portrayal. This movie was, after all, made at the height of the McCarthyite era, indeed in the same year that director Kazan himself would testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee–and, to lasting controversy, would sell out a number of actors and artists who he reported were (like him) former members of the Communist Party. Viva Zapata! had to be, as Kazan himself testified to the Committee, an “anti-Communist Picture.”

So we see how revolutions soon become morality plays, in which what is at stake is less their immediate impact than the lessons that others should or should not draw from them. Interpreting or representing the revolution soon becomes the site of a struggle that threatens to obscure the battles that the revolutionaries themselves fought. And sometimes the most effective counter-revolutionary narratives are the ones that claim to present the revolutionary cause with the most sympathy. Is it any wonder that John McCain, the former Republican candidate for the US Presidency, should tell us that Viva Zapata! is his favourite film? Or perhaps the point is that even the most counter-revolutionary representation has to acknowledge the attraction of armed revolt in the first place.

Manifesto of the Communist Party

Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party

Some of the least read and least remembered pages of Marx are those in which he takes on various other radical thinkers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a litany of names that are now almost entirely obscure and forgotten: Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Charles Fourier, Robert Owen, Henri de Saint-Simon, and the like. Scanning these pages–and others like them, denouncing for instance the state of German philosophy at the time–the eye tends to glaze over, the mind wander. These are surely intellectual battles that belong in the past. However much Marxism is a minority option today, these other thinkers seem to have left still less trace on our contemporary debates. Where, after all, are the Fourierists and Owenites now?

Yet it’s surely worth reconstructing (what Pierre Bourdieu might call) the full field of positions occupied by the nineteenth-century Left, if only to bring out the stakes of what Marx says elsewhere, and to uncover the limits of what could and could not be said or thought at the time. Plucking Marx alone as the sole voice for radical change is to mangle and misunderstand his ideas as much as it means forgetting a wealth of other options that he chose not to take.

It is quite clear, for instance, that one distinguishing factor for Marx was the Communism in his view had to be revolutionary. To talk of “Revolutionary Communism” would be a tautology. Hence in the Manifesto of the Communist Party he and Engels criticize what they call “Conservative or Bourgeois Socialism”–represented here by Proudhon–for desiring “the existing state of society minus its revolutionary and disintegrating elements. [It wishes] for a bourgeoisie without a proletariat.” Or, in a second variant, they argue that “by changes in the material conditions of existence, this form of Socialism [. . .] by no means understands abolition of the bourgeois relations of production, an abolition that can be effected only by a revolution, but administrative reforms, based on the continued existence of these relations” (70). Of course, put like that, we might suspect that there are still a few Proudhonites (in all but name) lurking in contemporary politics. Indeed, in some sense they seem already to have succeeded, rhetorically at least, in their wish for “a bourgeoisie without a proletariat.” Aren’t we all middle class now? And is it not the case that we endlessly see politics replaced by administration of one sort or another, from the Welfare State to the neoliberal technocracy that has all but replaced it?

The paradox, however, is that to be anti-revolutionary is also to be against the very same bourgeois order that the “Socialistic bourgeois” seek to uphold. For the “revolutionary and disintegrating elements” are essential components of modern capitalism, as Marx and Engels argue in an earlier (and rather more famous) section of the Manifesto: “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production [. . .] and with them the whole relations of society. [. . .] All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned” (36, 27). Any attempt to mitigate the constant crises that are intrinsic to the capitalist order are reactionary at best, missing both the spirit of capitalism essence of Communism.

So what kinds of revolution do Marx and Engels endorse? The perhaps surprising answer at the end of the Manifesto is: any and all. “In short, the Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things” (77). These very much include bourgeois revolutions, too, which is why “the Communists turn their attention to Germany,” precisely because (Marx and Engels argue) it is “on the eve” of just such a revolution that, in turn, “will be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution” (76). So for all the now-obscure apparent splitting of hairs with Proudhonites and the like, it’s striking that the Manifesto is also surprisingly pragmatic as it tells us that Communists will work with a wide range of parties–in France, the Social Democrats; in Switzerland, the Radicals; and so on–despite acknowledging their flaws and limitations. For everything is in the service of the goal: “the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. [. . .] Working Men of all Countries, Unite!” (77).

Revolution: A Practical Guide


This semester I am finally teaching a course I have long envisaged: a “practical guide” to Revolution. I can’t say that I am not a little anxious. I have already had departmental administrators worriedly suggesting I eliminate that phrase from the information I put about the course. And it’s the first time I’ve felt the need both on my syllabus and in class to state explicitly (for the sake of the lawyers, if no one else) that I am not actively condoning armed insurrection.

Anyhow, this post will be a repository of things I write in connection with the class:

The Coming Collapse

Zhou Enlai and Henry Kissinger

A famous story goes that when in 1972 Richard Nixon asked Mao Zedong’s deputy, Zhou Enlai, for his thoughts on the impact of the French Revolution, Zhou’s response was that it was still “too soon to say.” Whether or not Zhou actually said such a thing, and whether even if he did he was really referring to the events of 1789, is a matter of some doubt. But in any case, as Nixon’s interpreter apparently put it, it was “a misunderstanding that was too delicious to invite correction.” For it seemed very much to substantiate the notion that the Chinese play a very long game, patiently waiting for history to unfold. But it also resonated with the notion that, far from being merely punctual political events, Revolutions can only be evaluated and understood over the long term. Their real effects, if any, may take centuries to discern.

David Graeber

In “A Practical Utopian’s Guide to the Coming Collapse”, David Graeber offers something like a spatial correlative to this temporal caution. Drawing on Immanuel Wallerstein, he suggests that instead of our habit of seeing revolutions in strictly national terms–as American, French, Haitian, Iranian, Nicaraguan, or whatever–we should understand any true revolution in global terms: “revolutions have consisted above all of planetwide transformations of political common sense.” So the impact of the French Revolution might be felt in “Denmark, or even Egypt” as much as in France; perhaps “even more so.” And that impact might be judged in terms of the ways revolutionary spirit jumps national boundaries or crosses oceans: think of the interplay between the American, French, and Haitian revolutions, for instance. Or it might equally figure in the ways in which elsewhere the social order is reconfigured in response to and against that spirit: as the Russian revolution was “ultimately responsible for the New Deal and European welfare states” as the rest of the world tried to inoculate itself against the threat perceived on the streets of Moscow and St Petersburg.

Hence, against the pessimistic view that the revolutionary ethos of the 1960s (which was perhaps encapsulated in the single date of 1968) is long vanished, Graeber goes on to argue that contemporary neoliberalism continues to be a reaction against the perceived threat posed by the protests almost fifty years ago in Paris, Rome, Berkeley, and elsewhere. If so, “the legacy of the sixties revolution was deeper [and let us add, broader] than we now imagine,” and leads directly to a set of contradictions at the heart of the contemporary order: that “preventing effective opposition is considered more of a priority” that ensuring that the system itself works. Or in short, if the Left long seems to have abandoned the notion that there are alternatives to actually-existing capitalism, Graeber suggests that social and economic elites remain obsessed with the notion that those alternatives exist and may reappear at any time. So the paradox is that while those who purport to work for change see revolution as a musty concept buried in the past, those who want to forestall change at any cost are the ones who truly act as though Revolution were around the corner.

Rights of Man

Thomas Paine, Rights of Man

Thomas Paine is a curious character, whose legacy is hard to assess. But perhaps this is why it is all the more important to (re)read him. His difficulties, ambiguities, and ambivalences, in the midst of the eighteenth-century “Age of Revolutions,” may resemble our own in what are at first sight rather less revolutionary times. But perhaps our times are every bit as revolutionary as Paine’s: he spends much of his celebrated Rights of Man reporting back from abroad; and we are also faced with upheavals elsewhere (from Syria to Venezuela, Egypt to the Ukraine) that give rise to divided opinions and uncertain allegiances.

The first part of Paine’s book is, after all, given over mostly to a stinging attack on Edmund Burke’s critical account of the French Revolution. For Paine, Burke provides more fiction than fact. Specifically, his conservative opponent concocts a kind of moral drama full of “theatrical exaggerations” and “poetical liberties [. . .] omitting some facts, distorting others, and making the whole machinery bend to produce a stage effect” (23-4). In response, then, Rights of Man provides a rather soberer description of recent history, stressing the “cool deliberation” characterizing the creation of a National Assembly (60) and its lack of “mean passions” or vindictiveness against its enemies (64). Indeed, if anything, Paine rather downplays the novelty of the revolution itself, framing it as the logical result of a prior collective prise de conscience: “The mind of the nation had changed beforehand, and the new order of things has naturally followed the new order of thoughts” (51).

Yet it is not as though Paine himself were above playing to the gallery. This book was originally a pamphlet (two, in fact) that sought–and achieved–high circulation thanks as much to its witty ripostes as to its patient explication. Paine shows himself a master of rhetorical and literary figures, from metaphor to hyperbole: Burke, for instance, is described as “mounted in the air like a balloon, to draw the eyes of the multitude from the ground they stand on” (35); his discourse is discounted as “a wild unsystematical display of paradoxical rhapsodies” (35). And yet there is something rhapsodical about Paine’s text, too, and unabashedly so. Indeed, in part two Paine relishes the popular success of the first part of his tract (“I suppose the number of copies [to have been . . .] not less than forty and fifty thousand” [100-1]) and then immediately takes the opportunity to make a pun on Burke’s charge that it should be subject to “criminal justice”: “it must be criminal justice indeed that should condemn a work as a substitute for not being able to refute it” (101). In short, the Rights of Man is infused throughout with a sort of glee–one might even say jouissance–that might be thought to undercut the emphasis it otherwise places on the triumph of reason.

It helps of course that Paine feels he is very much on the right side of history. The problem with Burke, he claims, is not so much his failure to understand what was going on in France (or America) as his insight into the implications for England: “He writes in a rage against the National Assembly, but what is he enraged about? [. . .] Alas! It is not the Nation of France that Mr Burke means, but the COURT; and every Court in Europe, dreading the same fate, is in mourning” (88). Paine, meanwhile, takes the same revolutionary events to indicate that “spring is begun” (196), that we are promised “a new era to the human race” (106), and goes so far as to venture that he does “not believe that monarchy and aristocracy will continue seven years longer in any of the enlightened countries in Europe” (102). “The present generation,” he tells us, “will appear to the future as the Adam of a new world” (191). Sadly, perhaps, Paine’s enthusiasm is not exactly borne out by events. He himself would go on to be arrested (and very nearly executed) by the French. And one wonders what he would make of his glowing account of American Exceptionalism now.

But what kind of revolutionary was Paine? Given that he seems to think that the main burden of government (corrupt or otherwise) comes in the form of taxation, he could easily be read as a forerunner of the Tea Party or other right-wing libertarians. At the same time, he also seems to believe in a kind of basic sociability or commonality promoted by everyday interaction and habit (as well as trade). And yet he spends much of part two of his book coming up with a rather detailed plan of how to redistribute surplus tax revenue (once the monarchy and privileges of landholders have been abolished) that sounds much like the foundation of what could almost be a welfare state: in place of large monopolies of land, pensions and child benefit. In short, one might even believe that Paine was not only as rhapsodical but in some ways as paradoxical as Burke, as he see-sawed between calls for less government on the one hand, and on the other comprehensive proposals that would bring on more government. The new era that he proclaimed combines both the right to revolt, the refusal to be weighed down by tradition, and also the beginnings of biopolitics, the ever more insidious advance of power relations within the population.


Giaconda Belli

Gioconda Belli’s The Country Under My Skin documents both the euphoria and the disappointment of the Nicaraguan revolution. It’s also a meditation on the relations between power, affect, and knowledge. And it’s a seductive tale warning of the dangers of seduction.

Belli is in Costa Rica in the days leading up to Somoza’s downfall, frustrated about her distance from the real action. But thanks to her access to radio communications with rebel commanders on the front lines, she is able to follow the action if anything more closely than most of those on the ground: “It was mesmerizing to hear about the progress of the insurrection, to hear what was happening in real time” (234).

The final weeks and months of the Sandinista triumph went by astonishingly rapidly. Rather than leading, the Sandinistas were running to catch up with their impending triumph. Belli captures the “sensation of unreality” as victory finally, unexpectedly, raced up to meet them and the FSLN were thrust, blinking in the light, onto the world stage: “Sometimes it seemed as though they couldn’t be talking about my tiny country, abandoned by everyone and beholden to a bloody dictator for half a century, but about a major power, able to make policy decisions that would alter Latin America’s future” (236).

And then suddenly, almost anticlimactically, Somoza leaves office. And the Sandinistas, as much as anyone else, are left wondering what happens next: “Nobody spoke. Nobody moved. Everyone’s eyes glittered with anticipation” (239).

Then the celebration: “Overcome with joy, we fell into one another’s arms. ‘Somoza left!’ we repeated to each other, as we kissed, danced and hugged.” And Belli echoes Neruda’s famous “Heights of Macchu Picchu” in her invocation of the dead reborn in triumph: “Multitudes of our beloved dead came to life among us with their empty eyes, their deaf ears, the dust of their bones that could never celebrate with us” (239). It’s a mythic time of (re)creation: “The 18th, the 19th of July 1979. [. . .] Two days that felt as though a magical, age-old spell had been cast over us, taking us back to Genesis, to the very site of the creation of the world” (241).

Such is the world-making power of revolutionary violence.

Ernesto Cardenal and multitude

Ernesto Cardenal and multitude

But Belli, closely associated with the cúpula of the FSLN leadership, is soon entrusted with part of the transformation of that constituent power into constituted power: the construction of a nation, reconstruction of the state. Her task is to represent the revolution, to produce the “victory issue” of a new newspaper, to be called Patria Libre. This task can only be completed from the distance that representation requires, the newspaper then imported into the newly liberated country.

Flying into Managua on a plane loaded down with newsprint, Belli finds the airport almost deserted: the action is elsewhere. Only an old school friend has turned up to greet her, but Belli turns her away, judging her guardianship of the papers to be more important. Here, even at arrival, is the first disappointment, the first betrayal, of the revolution: over the “eerie desolation” of the airport terminal “Justine’s face would be always superimposed. I managed to shake off my uneasiness. There would be time later on to explain things to Justine, to my parents, I said to myself. They would wait for me, they always did. But history wouldn’t” (246).

Belli sets off, with her precious copies of Patria Libre, seeking to track down the history that the newspaper already claimed to represent. Her truck passes jubilant crowds: “their joy had the taste of sweet, red watermelon, its juice dripping down my chin” (247). But when at last they get to the city and reach the central plaza “there was no one left. That was when we realized that the crowds we’d seen on the road had been walking home after the celebration. All that was left in the great, deserted plaza were wrappers, trash” (248).

Henry Ruiz, aka Modesto

Henry Ruiz, aka Modesto

In place of this unpredictable, mobile multitude, the Sandinistas establish a militarized state as totem and fetish, positing its institutions and its leaders as the object of revolutionary desire–thus inverting the relationship constitutive of the triumph itself. Belli notes the demobilizing effect of this inversion, describing her lover Modesto and his “bodyguards, who only a month earlier had fearlessly confronted Somoza’s tanks, [and now] were docile and obedient in their leader’s presence” (266).

She observes the ways in which “military protocol had its grandiose, seductive side. [. . .] Modesto–comandante, member of the Sandinista National Directorate, maximum authority in Nicaragua both during and after the Revolution–would move calmly amid the soldiers hurriedly standing at attention” (266).

It’s not long before Belli also realizes that “the dazzling spell of power”–constituted power, we should clarify–also entails self-delusion among those who wield it: “these men had been seduced by the spell of their own self-image [. . .]. They felt eminently astute and capable, a cross between political bright boys and heroic, strapping knights-errant” (275).

The Sandinistas begin to believe their own myth of leadership, rather than learning from their experience of belatedness. The only indication of what has been lost in this transition is the lingering nostalgia that pervades Belli’s memoir, a “nostalgia for what we had been” (291) before the rigidity that set in with the state’s consolidation, and before the FSLN retrospectively branded everything in sight with their red and black logo.

See also The Country Under My Skin.