Conceptualizing Revolution: A Preliminary Sketch

Whenever we speak of ‘revolution,’ we find it extremely difficult to clarify what we mean by it. And this is what happened in our first session in which we tried but failed to reach consensus on the meaning(s) of revolution. In this post, I try to account for such bewildering difficulty in conceptualizing revolution by addressing the complexity of revolutionary events.

Revolution is difficult to define because it is constituted by contrary elements such as ideas and actions, individual will and collective power. Put differently, the difficulty of conceptualizing revolution arises from its two-fold structure that is both subjective and objective. What I mean by the ‘two-fold’ structure is something similar to what  Tom King suggested in the first session that we might think of revolution as the event that triggers new subjectivity. No doubt the formation of new subjectivity is a mental process occurring within the recesses of the individual minds. But, at the same time, that subjective process always accompanies objective phenomena generated by collective action.

The revolution as a mental transformation can be seen as objective first because such transformation begins with action. People tend to think that radically new thoughts bring out unprecedented actions. However, the reverse is truer to reality of the revolutions in which unimaginable actions invoke novel ideas. The Haitian revolution exemplifies this point as Michel-Rolph Trouillot describes it as entailing an ‘epistemological’ struggle to conceive of the ‘unthinkable’ (Trouillot). Trouillot argues that, because of the racial prejudice of the time, it was nearly impossible for those who lived in the late eighteenth century to bear in mind the fact that ‘black’ slaves were, indeed, autonomous human beings, masters of themselves rather than properties of other men. Only after the uprisings could the slaves in Saint-Domingue come to glimpse this unthinkable idea and confirm it through the course of the revolution.

In this sense, the Haitian revolution clearly evinces a dialectic of ideas and action which is, however, not unique to it. This dialectic only begins with action because we cannot think the ‘unthinkable’ while it is possible to do the unthinkable. It is despairingly difficult for us to come up with the ideas that transcend the conventions of the time, since we are situated in specific historical circumstances. Yet, for the same reason that we are historical beings, we are able to act here and now, and this action can open up the possibility of perceiving the things we could not see. Even though the action’s meaning may not be entirely clear at first glance, the agent comes to realize its meaning through retrospection and, indeed, other actions that grow out of this new perspective. The consciousness awakened by the action, thus, leads to another action which produces new thoughts, and the interplay between ideas and action goes on indefinitely. This cycle of doing and thinking the impossible arguably lies at the heart of the modern revolutions not only in Haiti but also in other places. Some revolutionaries in both North and South America did not fully know what they did; they would not understand or appreciate the possible impacts and implications of their actions until at a later date. Just as Toussaint Louverture did not dream of the independence from France despite his having paved the major step for it (Trouillot 44), Benjamin Franklin did not realize that he would work toward the independence from Britain (Arendt 34-35).

The revolutionary dialectic between the mind and actions produces objective phenomena in another sense, for the dialectic involves a group of people. In a series of revolutionary events, consciousness and action mutually transform one another not only individually but rather collectively, resulting in a concerted effort to rearrange the social and political institutions. The collectivity turns out to be particularly essential in revolution if we consider the ideas usually attributed to it—that is, the ideas of continuity and necessity (Arendt 37-48). ‘We did what we had to do,’ revolutionaries often testify. This sense of necessity derives from their changed conceptions of themselves and society, from the mental change that is, in turn, generated by their actions. Since they perceive the world in a radically different way, they feel it necessary to reconstruct their ways of living and the society as a whole. When the sense of necessity extends over time and space, it germinates another idea of revolution which attests to its collectiveness more dramatically. It is the idea of continuity or ‘an unending revolution.’ According to this idea, there is not just a revolution but rather a chain of the revolutions because preceding ones often operate as a source of inspiration for the subsequent ones, as the French Revolution bred the Russian Revolution and the Haitian revolution made possible the revolutions in South America and so on. The notion of revolutionary continuity thus shows that the revolution can involve an almost infinite number of people (including those in futurity), thereby being a collective event in its most expansive sense.

So far I have proposed to understand revolution as the event that radically transforms the ways in which people think of themselves, while pointing to its complex consequences that affect both the subjective and the objective. I highlight the bipartite structure of revolution, firstly, to underscore the tensions inherent in revolutionary events. As revolution is facilitated by the interplay between consciousness and action (not to mention that between the crowd and an individual), it entails the disparate elements which concur as well as conflict with one another—such as will and fortune, necessity and contingency, the rational and the emotional or even the unconscious. Second, the structure of revolution that I illumined calls for a subtler account of it than others that center on the rational. These accounts of revolution are intent on unraveling revolutionaries’ ideas, intents, and plans on the assumption that these individuals are rational agents in control of themselves as well as revolutionary events. The revolutionary process, however, is not so much intentional and rational as unpredictable and indecipherable. Hence the historiography of revolution need to spare room for the ‘imaginary’—the fantasies, hope, and desires that lingered on in the age of revolution, however invisible and frail they may be.

Yet the task of representing all the complexities of revolution is never easy as it sounds, for it ultimately raises the problem of representation, bringing up another equally difficult question as to which forms or media can best capture the imaginary as well as the rational. In other words, it makes us address such questions as whether the textual representation of revolution (for example, historical treatises or novels) is as effective as the visual one (such as paintings or sculptures), and —if we cannot avoid adopting some kind of literary/ narrative form in representing revolution— which narrative form would be most appropriate, among the lyrical, the dramatic and the essayistic. In this sense, as Rebecca Spang mentions in her review on the histriograhy of the French Revolution (31), an immediate question would be the one concerning the effectiveness of academic writing, for its logical argumentation in coherent style may weave human actions in rational order which might not have existed then. But, then, do we have alternatives to the logical way of describing revolution? I don’t have any at this moment, but I believe we will find the better ways of representing and reconstructing revolution if we dare face its complexity.



Arendt, Hannah. On Revolution. London: Penguin, 2006.

Spang, Rebecca L. “Self, Field, Myth: What We Will Have Been.” H-France Salon 1:1, No. 3 (2009): 24-32.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. “An Unthinkable History: The Haitian Revolution as a Non-Event.” Haitian History: New Perspectives. Ed. Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall. New York: Routledge, 2013. 33-54.

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2 Responses to Conceptualizing Revolution: A Preliminary Sketch

  1. Sue Lanser says:

    I’m struck, Haram, that the conundrums you identify in exploring the definition of revolution are (in your view) ultimately conundrums of representation. Within this framework, the articulation of any revolution as revolution becomes a problem of (a potentially tautological) historiography rather than a function of historical “events.” Such a position puts a large burden on discursive form, yet you leave us, by way of Spang, without much hope of replacing the “coherent” linear narrative as the mainstay of historiography. Do digital forms open new possibilities for reconceiving the history of revolutions? And how might swapping revolutionary event for revolutionary subject—another exchange that you seem to be implying here—likewise shift the ground of representation?

    I wonder too whether performance might be a particularly useful rubric for exploring the intersection of subject and event that so frequently constitutes the nexus of revolutionary representation, at least in the French context. I was struck, in doing some recent research, that Robespierre seems to have been far more often represented in drama than in any other genre (with the emphasis, of course, on his “fall,” to evoke the title of an important play by Coleridge and Southey that you can find at By contrast, I think we’d find Toussaint more often represented in lyric poetry, at least in the immediate aftermath of the revolutions. What might we learn from even a crude generic mapping of major Revolutionary figures? Might that kind of knowledge of representations across time inflect historiography in interesting ways?

    • Haram Lee says:

      As for your first question, I do think that digital technologies offer us new ways of conceiving revolution and other historical events (or the concept of ‘an event’ itself) as well, if you would utilize them in a self-conscious way. The project of making a timeline that graduate students are now engaging in would be an example. Rather than draw a linear chronology of revolutionary events or map them in chronological order, we are wrestling with the ideas of time and space such as the geographical range of revolutions and the subjective experience of events which involves a diverse set of temporality for different persons, precisely as we are to represent them using digital tools.

      Your mentioning a possible relationship between revolutionary figures and literary genres is so intriguing that it instantly makes me think of other examples. Can Georg Büchner’s Danton’s Death (Dantons Tod) be the one that conforms your line of reasoning?

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