The Return of Revolutionary Narratives and the Future of Revolution

by Guobin Yang

Recently, the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association was held in Philadelphia. The theme of the meeting was “Great Transformations: Political Science and the Big Questions of Our Time.” This sounded like a call for the return of grand narratives. A return, because there was once a time for grand narratives, and then they were pronounced dead and in their place there appeared multiple small narratives.

One of the grandest narratives that were essentially pronounced dead was revolution. The pronouncements came in the aftermath of 1989, but the process had started in the late 1960s. After 1989, the pronouncements appeared not only in the discourse of the “end of history” variety, but also among theorists of revolution.

In a volume edited by noted sociologist of revolution John Foran, entitled The Future of Revolutions and published in 2003, multiple scholars of revolution argued either that revolutions of the classical model will no longer happen, or that future revolutions will be of a different kind. For example, one of the contributors, Jeffrey Paige, author of the famous book Agrarian Revolution, writes:

Does revolution have a future? The answer to this question depends on the definition chosen. If revolution means the violent seizure of state power though class-based revolts from below the answer is almost certainly no. The Leninist model has been so thoroughly discredited that it is difficult to see how anyone could revive it now or ever.

Earlier revolutions tend to become models for later revolutionaries. These models are called revolutionary narratives or scripts. They provide schemas for action. In his introduction to Scripting Revolution, Keith Baker writes:

Revolutionaries are extremely self-conscious of (and often highly knowledgeable about) how previous revolutions unfolded. These revolutionary scripts offer frameworks for political action. Whether they serve as models or counterexamples, they provide the outlines on which revolutionary actors can improvise. And revolutionaries, in tum, can transform the scripts they inherit. Marx rewrote the script of the French Revolution; Lenin revised Marx; Mao revised Lenin; and so on and so forth. (p.2)

What do contemporary revolutionary narratives consist of? The narratives of Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring protests come to mind. These events brought the language of revolution back to public discourse. Clearly, the revolutionary narratives of 2011 were not entirely a conjuring up of the spirit of the past. They had many new things. As Todd Gitlin puts it in his Occupy Nation (2012):

The grandest originality [of 2011] was that in contrast to 1848’s uprisings across Europe and Latin America in behalf of nationalist and republican values against absolutist government and economic impoverishment, 2011 was chiefly nonviolent. The second, of course, lies in the electronic means of communication.

Yet at the same time, Gitlin sees historical precedents of the spirit of OWS:

the movement’s spirit, so unusual in the annals of social movements, yet not without precedent: its leaderlessness, its nonviolence, its rituals and obsessions, its divisions over conventional politics, over reform and revolution.

Consciously or unconsciously, OWS was partly modeled on 1968. There were, however, at least two intertwined revolutions in 1968, a cultural revolution and a political revolution. The cultural revolution manifested itself in the politics of lifestyle, sexuality, personal identity, drugs, counterculture, etc. The political revolution aspired to change political institutions. Both revolutions aimed at total change. The political revolutionaries in 1968 borrowed from revolutionary narratives of the Paris Commune of 1871. French situationists and anarchists imagined a system of superdemocratic workers councils. Italian students talked about workers’ autonomy. German students talked about re-creating the Paris Commune. American student radicals talked about following the ‘heroic example’ of the Cuban and Vietnamese revolutionaries. For example, in Beyond the Barricades: The Sixties Generation Grows Up (1989), Jack Whalen and Richard Flacks write:

While proving oneself through taking personal risks had, by 1968, become a central element in their own lives, political activity and risk-taking were now frequently defined in terms of willingness to support and, if need be, engage in military combat. Where ‘putting your body on the line’ once meant, in its most extreme form, a willingness to go to jail, a readiness to ‘make real sacrifices to stop this horrible machine,’ as one man recalled, many RU [Radical Union in UCSB] activists were now talking about ‘how prepared you have to be to lay down your life,’ to follow the ‘heroic example’ of the Cuban and Vietnamese revolutionaries. (p. 72)

It has often been argued that the 1960s concluded by transforming the revolutionary script from the classical Marxist model to new types of non-revolutionary social action (e.g. see Boltanski, “The Left after May 1968 and the Longing for Total Revolution,” 2002; Julian Bourg, “Writing on the Wall: 1968 as Event and Representation” in Scripting Revolution). Thereafter, revolution was redirected toward concrete goals instead of toward total social and political transformation. In other words, revolution as a grand narrative gave way to the small narratives of reform. In her May ’68 and Its Afterlives (2002), Kristin Ross argues that histories of violence and working-class radicalism in 1968 are suppressed in popular discourse. The afterlives of 1968 consist mainly of images of 1968 as a mellow, “poetic youth revolt and lifestyle reform” (p. 8).

It seems that the revolutionary narratives that came out of OWS borrowed from the spirit of the “poetic youth revolt and lifestyle reform” of 1968 more than the spirit of political revolution.  This is most evident in the discourse of authenticity, horizontalism, leaderlessness, participation that was present in both 1968 and 2011.

Despite all that was new about OWS, what seem to be lacking are radically new revolutionary narratives, narratives which offer new visions and blueprints about the future of a good society. OWS narratives focus preponderantly on means and methods, and less on ends. Terms that are now often associated with OWS are: general assembly, participatory democracy, horizontalism, leaderlessness, human microphone, social media revolutions. There is of course the language of the 99%, and in that respect OWS did aspire to revive the collective revolutionary impulse of 1968. Still, as far as revolutionary narratives are concerned, the OWS is a story about the ambivalence of revolution, which is also a story about the ambivalence of future revolutions.

Courtesy of the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania



Guobin Yang is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Department of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online (Columbia University Press, 2009), The Red Guard Generation and Political Activism in China (Columbia University Press, 2016), and Dragon-Carving and the Literary Mind (2 vols, Beijing, 2003). He is the editor of China’s Contested Internet (2015), The Internet, Social Media, and a Changing China (with Jacques deLisle and Avery Goldstein, 2016), and Re-Envisioning the Chinese Revolution: The Politics and Poetics of Collective Memories in Reform China (with Ching-Kwan Lee, 2007). He co-edits the new SAGE journal Communication and the Public. He tweets @Yangguobin.

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