What is a Revolution? Reflections on the Significance of 1989-90

In order to understand the significance of the ruptures of 1989, I want to put them into a broader historical context that began with the American and the French revolutions (themselves part of a wider movement that R.R. Palmer described in his classical study as The Age of Democratic Revolution).  But the political possibilities opened by this emerging democratic revolution were not realized in either case, and still less elsewhere.   Instead, the next two centuries were marked by the successive emergence—and, truth be told, relative success—of what I call forms of anti-politics.   Before going further, I should stress that this concept does not refer to what many participants in the dissident movements in East Central Europe meant by this term.  I do not refer to the opposition of society against the totalitarian state, nor do I mean the attempt to create an autonomous, self-governing civil society that could ignore the state, nor do I point to some form of existential “living in truth.”  What I have in mind is a more general, long term historical tendency which I will show later helps to explain the paradoxical fact that these dissident movements could have a political force that contributed to the overthrow of what remained of really existing totalitarianism.

Anti-politics is a paradoxical tendency that was born with the origin of political thought itself.  Its most famous practitioner was Plato, who was writing not only after the defeat of Athens, but after its restored democracy had voted death to Socrates.  Plato’s just society was to be ruled by Philosopher-Kings who were the “selfless servants” of Truth.  Their rule would make participation by the citizens unnecessary, superfluous, even harmful; its universal justice would leave no place for particular judgment concerning singular events.  The classical Greek reaction to Plato’s anti-political philosophy is represented by Aristotle’s recognition of the role of particularity, diversity and difference in the construction of a Polis composed of finite humans who come together to maintain not simply their biological life but to enjoy what they freely determine to be the Good Life.  Although the competition between the Platonic and the Aristotelian visions of politics reappears throughout the history of political thought, it becomes more acute in modern times, when the teleological vision of the world is replaced by a progressive, historical conception.

The historical forms of modern anti-politics to which I will refer here did not conceive of themselves as anti-political; on the contrary, each of them—economic liberalism, conservatism and socialism, to name only most general forms—considered itself to be the means to the highest realization of the traditional goal of politics:  the creation of justice and the realization of the Good Life.  Each developed political programs, supported by political ideologies, and appealed for support from social and political interests.  And each of them achieved at least some of their goals, while their competition with other forms of anti-politics (including supporters of absolute state power) produced a relative stability that lasted until the explosions of 1914.

It was only the ruthless seizure of power by totalitarianism that made it possible to recognize paradoxical foundation of anti-politics.  Whether in its Nazi or Bolshevik form, totalitarianism claimed to incarnate an ultimate value whose realization would mean that there was no longer any need for either political deliberation or personal participation.  Of course, in reality these totalitarianisms were not static; but they tolerated political activity only insofar as it was directed against “enemies” of their absolute power.   Political militants existed in the world of the totalitarians, but they were (as Harold Rosenberg put it) “intellectuals who didn’t think.”  They didn’t think because they didn’t need to think; they had only to consult the party line to know what was true and what was false; they had no way to judge in particular instances, and no ability to deal with ambiguity.  The totalitarians had given up their autonomy in its literal sense, as “autos”-“nomos”, the ability to give oneself (or one’s community) freely chosen laws.  Yet it is just this autonomy that is the essence of democratic politics.

I do not mean to equate totalitarianism with the political currents that came to dominate Western political life during the two centuries that followed the two historical democratic revolutions.  Such accusations belong to the polemical arsenal of the totalitarians, whose unsubtle use of the tu quoque argument, claiming that the other is guilty of precisely the sins that they themselves are accused of, was easily discredited by the facts.  My point is that totalitarianism radicalizes the anti-political implications of a style of thought that emerged at the time of the “age of democratic revolution” because its proponents were not able to understand and to live with the political uncertainties, instability and conflicts that are inherent in democratic social and political life.  The anti-politics of the market liberal, the conservative or the socialist (to remain with these most general categories) were attempts to re-introduce principles of certainty, stability and harmony into the post-revolutionary world.[1]  Totalitarianism went one step further, being less idealist, less tolerant of ambiguity, unwilling simply to understand the world when the task was nothing less than to change it.

From this point of view, the significance of the revolutions of 1989 was that they made it possible to return to the starting points of the democratic revolutions in the attempt to create a free political life—in the West (which was blind to its anti-political assumptions) as well as in the formerly communist lands.  The fact that totalitarianism—however revised, pacified and reduced to formulaic incantations—had not been defeated from outside but had fallen to its own internal contradictions could have been understood as a sort of “revenge of the political,” a return of the repressed, or a negation of the negation.  There are no doubt many reasons why that did not take place.  My thesis is that one reason that the new possibilities were not recognized lies in the simple fact that the art of thinking politically had been lost during the two-centuries of anti-political domination.  How that loss took place, and how and why anti-politics became hegemonic, needs to be explained in order to understand the strangely passive manner in which the fall of communism was received in the West—as a kind of tree that falls in a forest where no one hear its unexpected and unnoticed demise—and why its protagonists in the East remained content with the elimination of an old regime without yet  being able to imagine the lineaments of their new political life.

To understand the world-historical significance of 1989/90, we can begin from the question:  what was it that made the American and French revolutions “revolutionary”?  After all, a change of rulers, or even of regimes had occurred many times in human history, most recently in 1689, in what the British called their “Glorious Revolution.”  Indeed, for many of the leading actors in the American and French revolutions, that rather recent British experience served as a model.  However, the “Declaration of Rights” that was the culmination of the British regime change established only the rights of Parliament.  In the American and French cases, the concept of rights was more radical.  These revolutions expressed a mode of life and a style of thought that was “modern” in the sense that it eliminated all reference to transcendence, whether that of God (and divinely ordained rulers, be they monarchs or parliaments) or that of Nature (and its unyielding objective laws oriented toward a pre-fixed telos).  Modern natural law is subjective, derived from human nature and used to elaborate the norms that guide men in their social relations.  The great Declarations of the two revolutions appealed to what Jefferson called “self-evident truths” that were said to be immanent in the world.  The French Declaration drew from the idea of natural rights the practical conclusion that “ignorance, forgetfulness or contempt of the rights of man, are the sole causes of the public miseries and of the corruption of governments.”  But while these rights are said to be immanent in society, there is, and always will be, a distinction between natural rights and the positive laws by which the state attempts to realize them in society.  This non-coincidence of what is the case and what ought to be the case is the condition of the possibility of social criticism, as well as the foundation of democratic politics.  It is also the spark that fires the hearts and minds of revolutionaries, and it can have unintended consequences.

The problem of realizing natural rights became acute in the French case[2] despite the proclamation of political equality and the renunciation of all feudal rights on August 4 1789.  Reality was recalcitrant to revolutionary rhetoric.  It became evident that if natural rights and liberties were to be realized, they would have to be imposed by the power of the state.  This recognition came slowly but with a sort of inexorable logic as successive radicalizations increased the power of the state whose growth was justified by increasing resistance to its egalitarian project from individualistic society.  This revolutionary voluntarism finally took the form of the Jacobin Terror, which searched out its enemies among the “indulgents” and the indifferent, who were said to be “objectively” encouraging the enemies of the cause.  At the height of Jacobin power. Robespierre famously justified his policy in his speech on “The Principles of Political Morality.”  If “real democracy” was to be realized, he explained, true equality must reign; only then will the “virtue” of the people be able freely to express itself, unhindered by the forces of the counter-revolution.  For this reason, his “revolutionary system” would combine the “virtue [,]without which terror is disastrous [and] terror, without which virtue is powerless.”   Robespierre’s appeal to classical virtue was pre-modern, but his bold admonition expressed a larger truth about modern revolutions.  The revolutionaries claim to possess a “virtue” and to have access to a “truth” which is immanent to modern society; their use of force is comparable to that of a “midwife” or a “selfless servant” helping society to become what it already truly is, or ought to be.   With this extreme attempt to save the principle of revolution, the revolutionary in fact puts an end to its democratic reality; now criticism becomes opposition, even passivity is a threat, and politics becomes the sheer exercise of power.

In the present context, the French revolution represents the first stage in the development of anti-politics.   Its “revolutionary” thrust was based on its recognition that there are no transcendent norms binding human social relations, and that autonomy is both the means and the end sought be politics.  That opened the space for democratic freedom.  But the space was, so to speak, empty; self-rule and  no-rule (i.e., anarchy) seemed to be identical.  Meanwhile, the Jacobin recognition of the need to use the power of the state to overcome the existing social hierarchies in order to create equality, combined with the steely purity of the revolutionaries’ own virtue, pointed to the goal of overcoming the difference between the political state and the social relations over which it exercised its power.  The state had to be made stronger in order, paradoxically, to eliminate its difference from society.  The realization of Jacobin politics, in other words, would eliminate the need for politics.

The fault does not lie with Robespierre and his fellows.  The “essence” of the revolution cannot be saved by blaming one or another group for its deviation.  Even before the Jacobin seizure of power, the revolutionaries had sought to eliminate all intermediate powers through which society could express its particularity, preserve its diversity, or conserve its privacy.  Aside from the series of measures depriving the Church of its independence, the most famous of these pre-Jacobin revolutionary measures was the loi Le Chapelier (1791), which banned all forms of worker self-organization.  In philosophical terms, once natural law became truly law, the universality of the new socio-political order would leave no room for, and have no need of, particularity.  In political terms, the society and the state were to become identical.  As a result, there is no room for autonomous political theory nor political action.   The dream (or nightmare) of anti-politics had dawned.  Instead of a republican democracy that would combine the benefits of republican political equality with the creativity of democratic personal liberty, the legacy of 1789, and especially of 1793, has been the quest for a democratic republic in which social equality is identified with political freedom.

How can we explain the revolutionary force and staying power of the dream of a democratic republic?  On the left, this socialist anti-politics is seen in the hold that Jacobinism—with its always-lurking, real or imaginary, Thermidorian enemies—has had on the political imaginary of the succeeding centuries.  It recurs in the French historical sequence that began in 1830, passed to February 1848 before being extinguished June, only to reappear in 1871 with the Paris Commune.  The “spirit” of revolution then migrates to Russia in 1905, before finally triumphing in 1917.  And then, even when that final victory began to taste like burnt ashes, the faith lived on; critics of totalitarianism were a small minority, and many of them, like Trotsky, blamed a “Stalinist” deviation while clinging to the original scheme that predicted a passage from 1789 to 1793 onward to 1917 and happy tomorrows.   But all those who continued to dream the two-centuries’ old revolutionary dream do not deserve the label “totalitarian.”  The accusation is too harsh; it is moral rather than political.  It is more accurate to explain their attitude as anti-political.  Robespierre’s terrorist politics was not totalitarian; his pre-modern concept of “virtue” set limits on what even his vision of revolution could imagine.[3] Totalitarian politics, on the other hand, will accept no concept of limits.

This is not the place to establish the definitive definition of totalitarianism, nor to ask whether the Soviet Union was always totalitarian, whether the thaw of 1956 was significant, or whether Gorbachev’s project of a liberal communism was plausible.  Nor am I concerned to define the political systems of the countries of the former Warsaw Pact and their unique histories.   My claim is simply that the states that made up the old Communist Bloc, and chiefly the USSR, were anti-political; their goal was to realize for, and in the name of, their citizens a democratic republic.  Since the French revolution, this project has been identified with the political “left.”  But once the critique of totalitarianism has shown that this goal is shared with the more general project of modern anti-politics—defined as the attempt to erase the difference between society and the state, fusing the particular with the universal and the individual into society—it becomes evident that anti-politics is not limited to leftist politics.  Let me explain this point briefly.

The decades that were marked by the American and French revolutions saw the rise of two other anti-political currents, both of which remain with us .  The first was signaled by the publication of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations in 1776, the year of the American Declaration of Independence.  Smith’s analysis of the socio-economic relations that were replacing mercantile and feudal political institutions inaugurated the new science of political economy.  Of course, the former professor of moral philosophy did not mean to replace politics by economics, but in conditions of modernity—where the source of norms and values lay within the social world—his theory can be seen as tending toward an economistic anti-politics.  Although Smith recognized the negative consequences of the division of labor on the workers who produced the new modern wealth; and although he understood that capitalist “combinations” could hold wages to a minimum, his faith in the impersonal justice of the market over-weighed the “moral sentiments” which he had invoked in his first great book of 1759, which he constantly revised until the year of his death.[4]  Neither morality nor politics could insure the normatively just distribution of the “wealth” on which the power of the nation was built.  In Smith’s eyes, the market alone was able to realize the collective will that was hidden beneath the jumble of conflicting interests.  In this way, Smith’s market-liberalism was similar to the anti-political faith of the modern revolutionaries who sought to restore unity in the face of diversity, overcoming the difference between society and the state.

The second anti-political tendency that emerged as a reaction to the French revolution was conservatism.  It is important to see that conservatism only became possible in modern conditions, when there was no longer any external source of political legitimacy.  As a result, binding norms and sources of political obligation had now to be  found within society.  The Father of conservatism, Edmund Burke, turned therefore to the historical past in his Reflections on the French Revolution (1791).  Unlike the Jacobins who dreamed of restoring the long lost classical virtues, Burke looked to a past whose wisdom was still present, even though the always-critical modern spirit refused to admit its presence.[5]   He criticized the modern revolutionaries for their blind faith in an abstraction.  Who is this “man” whose rights are proclaimed, asks Burke?  Why worship an abstraction?  As for the state, which the revolutionaries used as an instrument to their own ends, Burke insists that its existence precedes that the individual, for it is not the result of a contract, like those regulating the sale of tea or spices but the precondition for such private affairs.  More generally, the philosophical abstractions of the revolutionaries are simply a way do avoid difficulty, even though it is just such difficulty that teaches men judgment, warns against facile short-cuts, and imposes limits on political voluntarism.  The error of the revolutionaries is that they are “so taken up with the rights of man, that they have totally forgot his nature,” which is to be part of a history that is larger than himself.  But this conservative appeal to a larger history has an anti-political basis; it too wants to reconcile what is with what ought to be, to overcome division and to reconcile the political state with society.

Dissatisfaction with the two forms of anti-politics gave rise to a third in the 19th century: socialism.  This more variegated style of political thought ranges from economist to utopian forms, with religious variants on one side, nationalist versions on the other.  Indeed, the fact that one can speak even of “conservative” forms of socialism, suggests that this third enduring form of anti-politics can be seen as the attempt to bridge the gap between the liberal and conservative tendencies that both serve to justify the established order.  In the case of socialism, while the immediate goal is to overthrow the existing regime, and in that sense the intent seems to be political, the longer-term vision is anti-political insofar as it entails overcoming the need for political action by reconciling the individual, society and the state.  That may be one reason that the proponents of Social Democracy historically had such difficulty in justifying their “compromises” when attacked by more radical factions.

After these world historical excurses, it is time to return to the question of the meaning of “revolution,” and the significance of the “events” of 1989/90.  My thesis, put simply, is (a) that a modern revolution makes possible the renewal of the democratic political project; and that this entails understanding and overcoming the anti-political tendencies of the modern age.  Further, (b) my claim is that 1989/90 was a revolution in this sense, both in the East and in the West.   This second point is important; dictatorships had been overthrown in the West—in Greece (1974), in Portugal (also 1974), and Spain (1975)—but these did not lead the western democracies to reflect on their own political systems.  And while 1989 was also the year of the awakening of Chinese democrats, whose movement was crushed at Tienanmen Square, its significance was overshadowed by events in Europe later that year.  Perhaps the movement known as “Charter 08,” which emerged in December of 2008, will be able to recall the roots of the democratic successes of the human rights demands in East-Central Europe.  But that remains to be seen.

My account of the French revolution suggested that one reason for its anti-political turn was the inability of the revolutionaries to recognize the existence of limits on their political project.  The autonomy that was symbolically realized with the fall of the Bastille was transformed into a politics of will.  This did not take place from one day to the next; the revolution was not determined from the outset.  But it is true that, in retrospect, an inexorable logic seems to have produced a political voluntarism that automatically treated all resistance, even if passive, as a threat that had to be eliminated.   On the other hand, the fact that the American revolution followed a different political logic suggests that all revolutions founded on human rights are not condemned to follow an anti-political course.  That was the thrust, for example, of Hannah Arendt’s oft-cited comparative study of in On Revolution. [6]  I’ve tried to give my own arguments for this point in The Specter of Democracy, which develops the contrast between American “republican democracy” the French attempts to create a “democratic republic.” In the present context, it will be more useful to stress the fact that the demand for the rights of man was also a basic feature of the events that, barely two decades ago, surprised and affected us all.

To see the political implications of human rights, it is useful to return to Marx’s essay “On the Jewish Question,” which criticized the French appeal to human rights as merely formal and “bourgeois,” the product and reflection of the emerging capitalist society of both alienation and exploitation.  Marx’s vision of the future communist society sought to transcend this abstract and idealistic vision of human rights by the militant realization of true human rights in a society that has become reconciled with itself, overcoming the distinction between economic society and the political state.  In this sense, Marx’s vision is just another variation of the anti-political faith that held sway during those two centuries of anti-political self-deception.  Yet for many, who may never have read him, that interpretation is simply the voice of common sense.  More important, among those who had read him, including the rulers of countries calling themselves his heirs, this may have been one reason that they did not understand the strength of the opposition that would overthrow them.

While it is always pleasant to see the cunning of reason at work, the idea that the French revolution expressed simply the birth pangs of bourgeois capitalism is but another illustration of an anti-political mode of thought.  When Marx interprets the freedom guaranteed by the Declaration of the Rights of Man as simply that of the egoistic monad separate from others and seeking to be protected from them, he does not recognize that this freedom is also a liberation from the constraints of an hierarchical society that makes it possible—but not necessary—to create new types of relation to other men.  When Marx denounces the separation of the public and the private spheres, he neglects the fact that this same separation protects freedom of opinion and the right to communicate with others in spite of dictates from the state.  When Marx mocks the right of “security” as simply protection of private property, he neglects the fact that this same right insures the individual against arbitrary arrest, while establishing the presumption of innocence.   Marx’s criticisms are not in themselves false; but they are anti-political.  He does not recognize that rights are not like “things” that a person “has”; rights are the expression of social relations.   That may be the reason that Marx doesn’t take into account the most basic aspect of the Declaration—namely, that it is a “self-declaration,” an act by which the people define for themselves their own rights, and thus express their own autonomy.  As such, these rights can be modified and enlarged by the same political process through which they were declared.

This interpretation of the revolutionary declaration of rights[7] explains why I have argued that the regime changes of 1989/90 were indeed revolutionary insofar as they made possible a democratic politics of rights.  These transformations did not mark the “end of politics,” as Francis Fukuyama famously claimed; and to say that they represented the triumph of “liberalism” is to make the mistake found in Marx’s critique the French Déclaration.  “Fukuyama” stands here for many in the West, who had grown accustomed to two centuries of anti-political thought and were unable to recognize in the dissident movements in the East the demand to realize in fact what they had come to take for granted.[8]  My claim that this lack of understanding (of the East) and of self-understanding (of the West) can explain in part the reasons that the hopes awakened in 1989/90 have not been realized.  Without a sympathetic echo from the West for their renewal of political life rather than simply for their casting off of communism, the critical forces in the East were overwhelmed; even among their own peoples, where they were already a minority, they found no encouragement to pursue their political project.

In its most radical form, my claim is that the West didn’t learn from the East, and therefore that it is responsible (at least in part) for the failure to realize the political revolution that had become possible in 1989/90.  The reason for this failure on the part of the West was its own complacent anti-political mode of life.

But what, in fact, could the West have learned?  The lesson of the critique of totalitarianism, which in turn led to the analysis of the rise and the domination of anti-politics, is that there are limits on what politics can do.  Politics cannot put an end to the very conditions that made it possible; if it tries to do so, it becomes anti-politics, perhaps even totalitarian.  But it is precisely this impossibility of realizing politics that creates the possibility of a renewal of politics todayThis is the sense in which the Eastern talk of “anti-politics,” of “civil society” and of “living in truth” should have spoken to us then, and continue to speak to us today.  They express the demand for autonomy to which I referred at the outset of this presentation.  When the limits on politics are defined as autos-nomos, self-given laws, then society will have begun to realize again the democratic project that was opened two centuries ago by the American and French revolutions.  While no one can know what forms a new politics will take, we know the anti-political temptations that it has to avoid.  And that is already a significant achievement.


[1] This inability to live with uncertainty, followed by the attempt to reintroduce it, describes the situation of those who, before 1989 did not expect it, and after it had appeared, sought to show that the unexpected was in fact necessary!

[2] The Americans did have something close to social equality; and their task was to create a constitution for a new state rather than to use existing political institutions to transform society. The Declaration of Independence was not incorporated into the American constitution, whereas the French Declaration serves still today as a statement of constitutional right.   In the American case, it has been observed that every radical movement for the past two centuries has appealed not so much to the constitution as to the Declaration and its theory of natural rights.

[3] For example, he did deliver his speech to the Convention, even though most of his enemies had already been purged!

[4] These constant revisions to his Theory of Moral Sentiments could be an expression of his dissatisfaction with the anti-political implications of his market-economism.

[5] This structure is analogous to Smith’s appeal to the market’s collective wisdom; truth and justice are immanent to society, despite its modern individualism.

[6] C.f., also my essay, Hannah Arendt und die “Probleme unserer Zeit,” Berliner Debatte Initial 19 (2008), 6, pp. 83-94.

[7] My interpretation here is deeply indebted to the work of Claude Lefort, which shows the intimate relation between the critique of totalitarianism and the possibility of democratic political life.

[8] In fact, Fukuyama is far more subtle, although his conception of the political goes back to the classical, pre-modern period.  As a result, he does not so much foresee the unmitigated triumph of liberalism but rather a Nietzschean conflict between “the last man” and the classical thymos that is at the root of tragic Greek political thought.


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