Revolutions are mainly thought of as sudden outbreaks, happening at a distinct point in time. This is a reductive definition of revolution. Think about it: why should insurrections that did not lead to a sudden social change not be considered as revolutions?
The anarchist anthropologist, David Graeber, thinks we should not, as revolutions are not just about shifts in power, but about radical changes in our conceptions about politics and social organisation itself: “Before the French Revolution, the ideas that change is good, that government policy is the proper way to manage it, and that governments derive their authority from an entity called “the people” were considered the sorts of things one might hear from crackpots and demagogues, or at best a handful of freethinking intellectuals […]. A generation later, even the stuffiest magistrates, priests, and headmasters had to at least pay lip service to these ideas.” This surely invalidates our conception of what a revolution is about.
The Cultural Revolution in China
However, the static definition of revolution, the mystical idea of overnight change of entire political systems, did not stop to haunt humanity in the 20th century, bringing along quite serious consequences. When we look at the global events of 1968, it is generally considered that it was somewhat of a failure, not only by its opponents, but more significantly, by its own participants. Consequently, the same people who, during their teenage years, were leading the Cultural Revolution in China presided over the introduction of capitalism as forty-year-olds. Similarly, it could be questioned what the political convictions are of those students who were throwing pebbles at the police in the streets of Paris in 68. According to Graeber, the belief in the failure of the uprisings of that year contributed in strengthening the idea that no other politico-economic system is possible: neoliberalism’s forte as it still stands today.
The Viet Nam Syndrom
A certain disillusionment can be understood. On the other hand, how realistic is it to think that the anti-war protests of the late sixties and the early seventies in the United States, for example, were really a failure? Indeed, the US did not speed up its withdrawal from Indochina as an immediate response to massive discontent. What we are never really told, however, is that it did have a profound influence upon the biggest warmongering state that the US is. Not wanting to deal with the “Viet Nam Syndrome” again, U.S. foreign policy remained very reluctant in engaging in any conflict, as Graeber shows, for almost thirty years. It took 9/11 to change it, and even, “the war planners made an almost obsessive effort to ensure the wars were effectively protest-proof.” Graeber ultimately reads the long-lasting heritage of the protesting hippies of the seventies as having contributed to U.S. defeat in the Middle East.
I would say that our understanding, our definition of revolution needs to radically change. We should not adopt a static understanding as it is only likely to induce widespread collective depression, but one that sees revolution as an always ongoing process of those who struggle for more equality and freedom. Lawbreaking, within this process, should not be excluded. We have to be willing to break the rules when they are not just, otherwise, we cannot redefine the boundaries of what it means to live in community and there will never be a revolution.
The argument of James C. Scott
This is the argument that James C. Scott defends in his work Two Cheers for Anarchism: “[I]ngrained habits of automatic obedience could lead to a situation that, on reflection, virtually everyone would agree was absurd. Virtually all the great emancipatory movements of the past three centuries have initially confronted a legal order, not to mention police power, arrayed against them. They would scarcely have prevailed had not a handful of brave souls been willing to breach those laws and customs (e.g., through sit-ins, demonstrations, and mass violations of passed laws). […] Thus, immanent in their willingness to break the law was not so much a desire to sow chaos as a compulsion to instate a more just legal order. To the extent that our current rule of law is more capacious and emancipatory than its predecessors were, we owe much of that gain to lawbreakers.” Ultimately, Revolution is about altering our perceptions and letting our perceptions of societal organization being altered by others even if their views at first seem ridiculous or immoral. Let’s not be disillusioned!