Revolution and Repetition

By Jordanco Jovanoski

Revolution and Repetition

Recalling its original connotation as a cyclical return, the term ‘revolution’ can mean the repetition of a failure. In this sense, the Bolsheviks repeated the failure of the Paris Commune and French Revolution, and the Chinese Communists repeated the failure of Bolsheviks. Nevertheless, it is apparent that the idea of revolution is much more complicated than the idea of mere failure, but perhaps we could make this notion the inaugural gesture of the essay and say that the idea of revolution has always been a problematic idea for political theory. Its problematic element (almost) brutally asserts itself as soon as one poses the question: what is revolution? Here it is perhaps useful (in a Heideggerian move) that we ask some questions about the question itself. What is presupposed by the question of “what is revolution?” Perhaps the spontaneous theoretical reaction to this question is the pressing need to say what revolution is, in itself[1]; to make revolution — in its untamed dimension — speak for itself. The next gesture would have been to give examples of how this idea burst into historical reality. However, the problem which arises at this point is the following: what happens in the gap between “revolution in itself” and revolution — as it happens — in historical reality?

The claim of this paper is that the gap between the two moments can be accounted for by positing an understanding of revolution as repetition. One of the crucial assumptions or presuppositions which will underpin the analysis of this “idea of revolution” is the negation of the possibility for a transcendental concept that defines revolution as such. What is the justification for this move? It is, inter alia, that a transcendental idea of revolution, an idea which posits revolution first and foremost as a noumenon cannot completely enter the picture as a phenomenon, which means effectively, that we are always engaged in the inescapable deadlock defined by the gap between noumenon and phenomenon: i.e. the revolution which we conceptualize in thought, will never “perfectly” translate into the revolution which we see before our eyes; the thinking of revolution, never matches with the doing of revolution. Therefore, in order to avoid the theoretical impasse, in this paper I will seek to  reconsider the thinking of revolution itself by positing the idea of revolution not as a noumenal concept, not as an abstraction, but rather simply as an idea of repetition grounded into reality itself, a move that is supported by the term’s conceptual history. The idea of revolution thus becomes not something which is opposed to reality, but rather as something which emanates from reality itself.

Why Repetition?

Of course, the obvious question here remains: why are we approaching the problem of the idea of revolution along the lines of the notion of repetition? In my experience, revolutions are those acts of history which seek to shatter the repetitive sequences of oppression and introduce us to the experience of “the new.” Indeed, social revolutions are, in the words of Theda Skocpol, “those rare but momentous occurrences in modern world history”[2] where, for a brief moment, there exists an opening of possibility for something new that seeks to end the relentless repetition of the old.

But articulating the problem in this way seems in itself very delimiting and problematic for many reasons, one of which is that such articulation of revolution forces us to view revolution as a “miracle event,” almost divine in its essence, which, once in a while, comes upon us from the heavens, strikes down the oppressors, and redeems the oppressed. Instead of appreciating this “mystery” of revolution, what if we try to approach the question from a different modality, by asking, namely: in those “rare but momentous occurrences” of revolution, what is that which always ‘repeats’ itself? This question, in one way or another, troubles every thinker of revolution. In order to grasp the idea of revolution, such thinkers seek the occurring repetitions in revolutionary experiences.

The singling out of the repetitive experience within revolutionary experiences themselves can be done on many levels. Theda Skocpol, for example, has done it on the level of state power. She makes the argument that 20th century revolutions in Russia and China demonstrated a very simple repetition: in both cases the revolutionary seizing of state power transformed these countries from a perceived undevelopedness into superior industrial and military powers (a shift that precipitated the Cold War standoff with the West). “What the Russian Revolution was for the first half of the twentieth century,” argues Skocpol, “the Chinese has been for the second half. By showing that a Leninist party can lead a peasant majority in economic and military struggles, it ‘has brought a great power into being which proclaims itself the revolutionary and developmental model for the poor countries of the world.’”[3] Here the Chinese revolution is seen as the repetitor of the Russian revolution on the level of development: the effects of the taking hold of state power repeated themselves, in the Russian and Chinese case studies, as both countries transformed themselves from agrarian into modern states via their revolutionary experiences.

In the same book Skocpol also argues that although reverberations of revolutionary experience seem to produce historically similar effects, the truth remains that revolutionary conflicts are far too complex to be reduced to the common efforts of revolutionary groups and radical vanguards. According to Skocpol, these groups only represent part of the constituted totality of revolution; they are actors that have “become participants in complex unfoldings of multiple conflicts. These conflicts,” she further claims, “have been powerfully shaped by and limited by existing socioeconomic and international conditions. And they have proceeded in different ways depending upon how each revolutionary situation emerged in the first place. The logic of these conflicts has not been controlled by any one class or group, no matter how seemingly central in the revolutionary process. And the revolutionary conflicts have invariably given rise to outcomes neither fully foreseen nor intended by— nor perfectly serving the interests of —any of the particular groups involved.”[4]

The manifest problem in Skocpol’s analysis is the following: how do we reconcile these two opposing tendencies within revolutionary experience? On the one hand we have the experience which shows us that revolutions are those events which follow a structural logic where we witness “rapid, basic transformations of a society’s state and class structures,” all the while being “accompanied and in part carried through by class-based revolts from below.” On the other hand, revolutions hinge on the radical contingency of the particular situation that is itself deeply connected to, “international contexts and to developments at home and abroad that affect the breakdown of the state organizations of old regimes and the buildup of new, revolutionary state organizations.”[5] In other words, revolutions are those events which are subject to both necessity and contingency: to necessity in the sense that their effects are structurally discernible phenomena (i.e. modernization, transformation of state power and class structure, etc.) and to contingency in the sense that their enactment, progression, and outcome always hinges on the multiplicity of factors, contexts, and forces which populate the situation within which they have emerged as a possibility. In this way, there is a deep sense in which revolutions appear as repetitions. They are the repetitions of this specific interplay between necessities and contingencies, where what is repeated is: a) the necessity as the radical cut which shatters the previous order of things; and b) the contingency as the very difference of the context within which a revolution has emerged.

Yet another crucial question arises: when we say “repetition” in relation to revolution, what exactly do we mean on a conceptual level? Indeed, what is problematic here is that repetition itself is a very complicated notion. What does it mean, effectively? In his masterwork Difference and Repetition, Gilles Deleuze argues that on a very fundamental level, it means the occurrence of the same; but, and this is the paradoxical aspect of repetition, in such a way that the very occurrence of that particular “same” is a different occurrence. In other words, when you repeat A, to the effect that the result of that repetition is another A, i.e. A1 — the (1) in A1 ensures that you cannot avoid committing a difference precisely in the very act of repetition itself. The 1 stands for the change which has been produced by the act of repeating, and this change being an empty signifier, signifying only the pure difference between the original object and the repeated object.[6] According to Deleuze, pure difference is an occurrence only on the level of perception (since the object repeated could be exactly the same as the original object, the only thing which separates the two is the fact that we are able to cognitively register a difference between original and repeated object) and thus the claim that “repetition changes nothing in the object repeated, but does change something in the mind which contemplates it.”[7] Repetition thus hinges on the very difference it has produced in the mind — in order for us to identify an object as a repeated object [as the same] we must, paradoxically, first cope with its difference from the original object.

In relation to this difference inherent within the notion of repetition, we are able to speak of repetition as the site where something new occurs. The very difference which repetition produces in us is precisely this experience of novelty, and it is precisely what makes repetition a notion intimately connected with the idea of revolution. The reason why it is so difficult to make the idea of revolution a clear idea, is because, essentially, the very impetus of radical change, of breaking with the rules of the situation which act as the limits and conditions of possibility; indeed, of producing a difference, is what is always being repeated in revolutionary experience. “Difference inhabits repetition,” says Deleuze, and the way in which we can draw something new from repetition is precisely the way in which we can draw something new from revolution. In this sense, if revolution is the “object repeated,” as Deleuze argues is the case for repetition, it does not itself change — that is to say, it remains the realization of a radical cut, of radical transformation that it has been since the 18th century. This is what gives revolution now its seemingly eternal dimension, and on this fundamental level, revolution seems to have always meant the forcing of a radical change, radical difference (what remains unchanging is the very possibility of change itself). However, where change does occur is (as Deleuze says) in the mind which contemplates it (revolution); or in other words, the repetition of the same radical cut produces in us the experience of something new. This is the modern idea of revolution at its most paradoxical limit. It is the repetition of the eternal revolutionary gesture which is able to produce in the mind the experience of something which is new. As Deleuze says, “does not the paradox of repetition lie in the fact that one can speak of repetition only by virtue of the change or difference that it introduces into the mind which contemplates it?”[8] — and to go even further than Deleuze, is not the same true of the idea of revolution? Isn’t the paradox of modern revolution precisely  the fact that each revolutionary act is aiming to introduce a radical change or difference (i.e. of something new) through the repetition of the same gesture of rupture with the existing order of being? The crucial Deleuzean point would be that between two repetitions, there is always a difference[9] — and obviously, in the same way, we could say that between two revolutions, there is always a difference as well (i.e. although the Chinese revolutionaries and the Russian revolutionaries were in this sense the repetitors of the same idea — there is nevertheless fundamental difference between the two revolutions). Thus, revolution is a repetition insofar as what is eternal in the revolutionary gesture (the radical cut, the break of the existing order of things, etc.) is repeated differently depending on the specificity of each revolutionary situation. The idea of revolution thus becomes on the one hand, something which is repeated, but, on the other hand, it also becomes something which is repeated differently, depending on the concrete situation.

Hence the claim must be made that the idea of revolution, though a matter of concrete conditions and concrete situations where “practice alone furnishes the answers to [our] questions”[10] as Lenin expressed it, has nevertheless this philosophical dimension of repetition which needs to be examined. However — and this is crucial — in adequately revealing this dimension of revolution, the aim is not to oppose the idea to reality. In other words, having a disparity between theories of revolution on the one side and the praxis of revolutionary upheaval on the other is problematic for the conceptualization of revolution as such. It is as if the problem of revolution confronts us here almost in its full impossibility. According to this dualistic and oppositional logic, the thinking of revolution is never quite compatible with the doing of revolution. The identity of ‘theory and praxis’ in revolutionary phenomena always becomes relegated to (what Theodor Adorno called) its fundamental untruth,[11] in which the concept neither redeems the conceived thing, nor does the conceived thing justify the existence of the concept. In other words, we have a situation in which revolution neither resembles its own idea, nor is the revolutionary idea justified in its representation of revolutionary experience. The wager of this paper is that the notion of repetition as developed in its Deleuzean frame (of difference) accounts for this basic antinomy. It accounts for it because if we read revolution against the background of a repetition, we are not positing the experience in the face of the idea, insofar as the idea is itself grounded into the experience. The universality of revolution, that is to say the eternal modern dimension of its modality as a radical cut, (but also a demand for radical freedom and equality) which breaks with the existing order of things is repeated, while what remains on the level of difference is the multiplicity of contexts, struggles, and domains into which revolution can occur. Therefore when we say that a revolution is a repetition, what we mean is that it is a repetition of the same universality but into different areas of struggle.

The Revolutionary Situation

Here I will now turn to Alain Badiou, who, in many of his philosophical and theoretical works, develops a very counterintuitive notion that he calls “the philosophical situation.[12] For Badiou, a philosophical situation is not merely any situation of discourse, any assertion or (to put it in those mannered multi-culturalist terms) any situation of “narrative”; rather, Badiou’s notion of the philosophical situation (or a situation relevant to philosophical examination) proposes the following abstract definition: “A situation is philosophical or ‘for’ philosophy when it forces the existence of a relation between terms that, in general, or in common opinion, can have no relation to each other. A philosophical situation is an encounter. It is an encounter between essentially foreign terms.”[13] Is this not especially pertinent for the revolutionary situation, which, is as such, an extremely forceful “encounter” between (at least) two forces which are, in a fundamental way, foreign to each other and have no common denominator between each other?

This is the same encounter between the two incommensurable forces which are at the center of Lenin’s notion of “dual power” (dvovlastie). When Lenin insists, against his less radical comrades, that there is no middle way, that we as revolutionaries cannot act in concert, participating with Kerensky’s bourgeois Provisional Government even if that is the government which has (for the time being) taken power of the state, his reasons are quite clear: the positions of the two groups, the Bolsheviks and Workers’ Soviets on the one hand, and Kerensky and the bourgeois Octobrists on the other, like the diagonal and the side of the square, remain incommensurable.[14] Lenin’s notion of “dual power” is thus much more complex than the simple, obvious assertion of the existence of two entities which hold power alongside each other within the same domain (i.e. the Workers Soviets and Bolsheviks holding power over the workers, the Provisional Government holding power over the state). For Lenin, “dual power” was also the domain of impossibility: there is no compromise between the two entities of power, the two sides, a struggle between the two is imminent, and at the end there must be a vanquished and a victor. Only in reading the notion of “dual power” along these lines do we get a sense of its true, radical aspect. “The unique task of philosophy,” Badiou continues, “is to show that we must choose…philosophy confronts thinking as choice, thinking as decision. Its proper task is to make the choice clear. Hence…a philosophical situation involves the moment in which a choice is proclaimed — a choice of existence, or a choice of thinking.”[15]

When considered from this perspective the revolutionary situation remains “philosophical” insofar as it is precisely this: the (repetition) of an imminent clash between two opposing forces that cannot be mediated through any sort of common term. We must, at the end of the day, choose which side we belong to. Unlike the western, neoliberal democratic situation, the revolutionary situation is thus one of confrontation, not one of conversation. In the eyes of revolutionary thought, the freedom of western bourgeois democracy remains confined to the domain of discussion. Let us, briefly, take the example of President Barack Obama. We need not go through a complex philosophical, historical, and political analysis to prove that Obama is not a revolutionary thinker but rather a bourgeois thinker. A simple glance at his political stance over the last three years would prove the above hypothesis to be the correct one. Every political pitfall between Democrats and Republicans has been articulated by Obama as a problem of “partisanship,” therefore the reasons behind the failures of his administration are attributed to a lack of mediation, lack of positive and constructive conversation between the two sides. His argument essentially is this: American democracy is inadequate and unable to serve the needs of the people at this conjuncture, because the two parties that hold power are unable to reach a common ground on the major issues. When the dialogue is reestablished, America will continue to move forward. What Obama’s politics presuppose therefore, is that the only legitimate political stance in a properly democratic society is the one which stipulates that the two opposing sides must establish authentic dialogue and find common agreement. The crucial aspect of such a democratic situation is conversation.

The revolutionary situation is, on the other hand, (for better or worse) precisely the opposite one. Indeed, one cannot imagine Robespierre, Lenin, or even Jefferson, in the midst of the revolutionary struggle and crisis, having the urge to sit down and discuss the possibility of common objectives with kings Louis XVI, Nicholas II, or George III. For these revolutionaries, such an act was simply not an option – to the extent that it would necessarily abolish the revolutionary dimension of the concrete situation (and only if the divine rulers by their own volition rejected their respective monopoly on power, thus completely removing themselves from the situation and committing political suicide). The six opposed terms which we presented above, Robespierre-Louis XVI; Lenin-Nicholas II; Jefferson-George III are a repetition of the same logic, the logic of the revolutionary situation — each term is the other’s “outside,” maintaining the irreducible gap, the abyss which replaces the middle, and further asserts the lack of mediated common ground between them, allowing oneself no other option but to choose on which side he or she stands. This is why each of their respective situations can be considered revolutionary (thus the opposite of our contemporary neoliberal democratic situation).

First, this leads us to assert that in the domain of politics, Badiou’s “philosophical situation” becomes transformed into a revolutionary situation. Second, we must also assert the exact opposite: namely, that the revolutionary situation is also a philosophical situation, insofar as revolution itself, is the name of that event which stages the impossible relation, the relation between two radically opposing and mutually exclusive forces which cannot operate simultaneously in the same domain, i.e., when revolution has transpired successfully, it automatically means that the old order of things has been destroyed and is no more — one cannot have both at the same time.  Third, and more importantly, insofar as the problem of revolution is a philosophical problem, it manifests itself as the tension between theory and praxis. In a revolutionary situation, the relation between theory and praxis is always a gap, a paradox — it is always dialectical — in revolutionary times, one deprives reality of its value, its meaning, its truthfulness, and (re)invents the world for the sake of creating new value, new meaning, and a new truthfulness – in a word, for the sake of creating a new reality. Crane Brinton was troubled precisely by this gap, this very paradoxical dynamic between theory and praxis which is peculiar to the revolutionary situation, and most of all to the (almost terrifying) minds of the revolutionaries themselves. Consider what he says in Chapter Six of his The Anatomy of Revolution, entitled “The Accession of the Extremists”:

For most men,there is a gap between their deeds and their professions, between what they are and what they would like to be, between what they are and what they think they are. Normally, however, they manage to keep the gap small enough, or turn their attention away from one side of it or the other, so that they are not unduly troubled by it. For the leaders of the extremists in times of revolution the gap looks to an outside observer enormous, bigger than it ever is in normal times. A few men, like Fouché, seem to have been terrorists to save their own skins. But, in general, only a sincere extremist in a revolution can kill men because he loves man, attain peace through violence, and free men by enslaving them. Such contrasts in action would paralyze a conventionally practical leader, but the extremist [the revolutionary] seems quite undisturbed by it.[16]

The problem here is a very radical one. What Brinton is saying is that each true revolutionary situation is a situation in which we are inevitably confronted with the horror of incommensurability between theory and praxis. In this sense revolution means that there is no higher harmony between the ideal and the real, that the way in which you reconcile the two is not by making the impossible possible, but rather by making impossibility itself part of the possible by accepting the deadlock as such, as part of reality. It is this monstrosity of revolutionary figures that Brinton is trying to crystallize. Revolutionary leaders were not monsters because they had a rather harmonious, balanced conception between revolutionary theory and revolutionary praxis —they were monsters precisely because, at the end of the day, they perceived no radical difference between the one and the other, because they were the madmen who actually thought they could put radical freedom into practice. Indeed, Brinton’s insight into this haunting dimension of revolution also reveals the haunting dimension of the theory/praxis relation itself.

Reconciling theory and praxis is thus not the inspirational and sanguine project that all of us in academia constantly strive to achieve but, like the law of the asymptote, we discover that it is such that we can only constantly approach it but never reach it in any actual way — indeed, on some fundamental level, reaching such reconciliation between theory and praxis would mean, from the standpoint of revolution, nothing but pure madness. Why madness? Let us take Marxist revolutionary theory as an example. The general aim is to overthrow capitalism in favor of a classless society where class antagonisms among the ruling and ruled disappear. What would the aim of such a theory effectively mean? It would mean nothing but the overthrow of the logic of capital which is the logic of constant accumulation of profit. This is the theory. The praxis has thus far been deemed impossible, and any attempt at it has culminated in catastrophe. Why? The theoretical answer here would be to a great extent related to the radicalism of the theory itself. That is to say, the idea behind the theory is radical to the effect that anything other than itself is inadequate and thus a failure. The problematic aspect of the theory/praxis relation becomes manifest in its completeness here: the Marxist idea is not an idea opposed to reality, rather, it is the idea which is grounded in reality itself; as a critique, it is the truth of capitalist reality, as a demand, it is the truth of revolution in the face of the existing order of things.  In other words, when taken to its outmost horizon, to its radical limit, the praxis of Marxist theory is nothing else but the theory itself.

In revolution, there is no moment of translation from theory to praxis, there is no reduction of the ideality of theory to the reality of praxis — the radical and revolutionary call for classless society means only itself, classless society, without negotiation, without a middle-ground where society remains divided in a mixture of opposing classes and functions by some or other compromise formation. In this way, the reasons behind the monstrosity of revolutionary leaders become apparent — what they were faced with in a revolutionary situation was the truth of the revolution itself, and everything else paled in comparison and was false when compared to this truth. The revolutionary situation is thus ultimately a situation of self-reference, where revolution, if it is to remain a revolution at all, must be a repetition, referring only to its original self, and only to its own laws.


[1]After all, what makes revolution revolution, is precisely its objective dimension, i.e. the fact that it does not spare those who do not believe in it.

[2] Theda Skocpol, States and Social Revolutions, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 3.

[3] Ibid.,4.

[4] Ibid., 17-18.

[5] Ibid., 4-5.

[6] Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 70.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.,77.

[9] V.I. Lenin, Revolution at the Gates, ed. Slavoj Žižek, (London, New York: Verso, 2002), 46.

[10] Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, tr. E.B. Ashton, (New York: Continuum, 1995), 5.

[11]11 See for example, Alain Badiou, Polemics (London, New York: Verso, 2006) pp.3-11 as well as (with Slavoj Žižek) Philosophy in the Present, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009), 3-16.

[12] Alain Badiou, Polemics, (London, New York: Verso, 2006), 3.

[13] See, V.I. Lenin, Revolution at the Gates, ed. Slavoj Žižek. (London, New York: Verso, 2002), 21.

[14] Alain Badiou, Polemics, (London, New York: Verso, 2006), 4.

[15] Crane Brinton, The Anatomy of Revolution, (New York: Vintage Books, 1965), 159-160.

[16] Crane Brinton, The Anatomy of Revolution, (New York: Vintage Books, 1965), 159-160.