Why be a revolutionary? – Who or What is a revolutionary?

My previous two posts on this first fundamental question addressed the question of praxis and the philosophical underpinnings of the revolutionary. This post goes back to both of those issues in seeking to answer the question of who can or is a revolutionary?

To a degree this question is already answered in my previous posts. The revolutionary is someone who is fundamentally opposed to the status quo AND who is involved in revolutionary praxis – the unity of theoretical and practical action to oppose the status quo and realise a fundamentally new system.

The above still holds. However, there is always the risk that people mistake being revolutionary with certain stereotypical caricatures of what it is to be a revolutionary. Some people mistake being a revolutionary and legitimate praxis as playing revolutionary guerilla and wearing Che t-shirts. I risk here getting into a ‘prolier than thou’ situation, a favourite past-time of some on the self-styled revolutionary left. Nonetheless, I think it is a risk worth taking as part of this evaluation of what it is to be a revolutionary.

Formal Revolutionaries?

People come to becoming a revolutionary through various paths. Some people are initially attracted to it out of a desire for attention, out of no other reason than a sense of rebellion, or an attraction to a romantic imagery of what it is to be a revolutionary.

Those who come to the self-description of being a revolutionary by these means are often the ones who play revolutionary through various versions of ‘dress-up’ (Che berets, military surplus store clothing, various ‘revolutionary’ parephanalia, etc.) and are often the most militant in their positions, often calling for the most extreme strategies and tactics, even if they are often the ones with the least experience in actual conflict situations.

These ‘revolutionaries’ are often only transitory revolutionaries. They often come to adopt a revolutionary position in their youth and quickly move on to other positions. For the majority, in my experience, this revolutionary stage is short-lived and they generally adopt a more centrist, reformist status quo position, if not a general apathy towards politics. Some adopt relatively extreme free-market positions. A minority move to extreme positions of various authoritarian/corporatist/fascistic forms. Similarly, a minority move from this superficial revolutionary position to a more genuine revolutionary position.

These superficial revolutionaries have their place in the revolutionary mileu. They provide useful ‘boots on the ground’ at key moments, and their extremism can often promote some valuable and key theoretical debates. And even though many move to a reformist position later in life, these former revolutionaries provide potentially crucial future support in a revolutionary moment. And as previously noted, some do continue to become genuine revolutionaries.

Formal Genuine Revolutionaries

I will keep this category rather brief. Essentially the formal genuine revolutionaries are those that have displayed a long-term commitment to revolutionary praxis. They have often consciously developed their theoretical and philosophical understanding of their position and critique of the status quo.

In practice they often take the lead in counter-acting capitalist hegemony, in the sense of leading both the ideological defence of the revolutionary position and developing the revolutionary critique of the status quo. In action they often take the lead in co-ordinating and advocating revolutionary strategy and tactics, from party organisation and activities to potential armed actions or more prosaic consciousness raising and mass organisation.

Informal Genuine Revolutionaries

In addition to the ‘formal genuine revolutionaries’ there are what I call here ‘informal’ genuine revolutionaries. These revolutionaries may not even realise that they are revolutionaries. They are not revolutionaries in the classical sense of formal theoreticians, party activists or guerrilla leaders. However, in one way or another, they have come to the position that the system is both contrary to their philosophical underpinnings and cannot be reformed. They may not even necessarily be conscious of coming to this position, but they realise it in practice – in their reaction to events and thoughts on certain matters.

These revolutionaries develop revolutionary strategy and tactics organically, that is, almost spontaneously, without assistance or inspiration from the formal revolutionaries, and merely as a direct outflow of their (conscious or unconscious) fundamental opposition to the status quo and in relation to their daily lives.

These informal revolutionaries are found in every sphere of human life. They exist and can develop in any sphere, any occupation. They can be teachers, scientists, shop-floor workers, construction workers, service workers, musicians, writers, clerks, etc. They can be blue collar or white collar workers, even cultural workers (in the sense of artists). They can even be members of the ruling class who come to positions, from various paths, that are fundamentally revolutionary.

In Conclusion

The essence of a revolutionary then is a fundamental opposition to the status quo and a long-term commitment to revolutionary praxis.

This definition needs some clarification though, as it could be argued that various extreme right-wing ideologies could be equally fundamentally opposed to the status quo and committed to overthrowing this status quo.

I think then that the term ‘revolutionary’ needs to be qualified then, in that the revolutionary must also have the commitment of opposing any and all forms of exploitation, and that this opposition to exploitation must form a fundamental aspect of the revolutionary’s opposition to the status quo and commitment to revolutionary praxis.

Anyone can be a revolutionary. They do not need to know revolutionary theory. They do not need to be active in the traditional revolutionary activities of party organisation or insurrection. Revolutionary praxis can – and I believe, must – be developed in both formal and informal spheres (not just in demonstrations, party action or insurrection, but also in the workplace and in everyday life).

All that a revolutionary needs is the triad of opposition to exploitation, a belief that exploitation is inherent to the existing system (and as such cannot be reformed out of the system) and a commitment to developing a new system.

Formal revolutionary theory and action have their place in this, and can certainly help inform the revolutionary of the best approach they can or should take, as well as help them with their critique of the status quo. But it is a mistake to believe that formal revolutionaries or praxis are the only genuine revolutionaries or praxis.

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