Translation: Strength and power. Reimagining revolution

This is a translation of an article by Amador Fernández-Savater, originally published 19th July on the Interferencias blog on eldiario.es.

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Strength[i] and power. Reimagining revolution.

How can it be possible for a group of fifty people to stop an eviction? And for this to happen time and again (up to six hundred times). I have been thinking about this question for a while. On 25-S, at the Plaza de Neptuno, we witnessed directly that the police are able to empty a space of any number of demonstrators. So, what strength is it that allows these fifty people to stop an eviction? What does it mean to have strength, if it doesn’t coincide exactly with having power (whether physical, in numbers, economic, institutional, etc)? What follows is an attempt at answer that does not pretend to exhaust the question. That is, there is room for other answers, and, above all, there is room to keep on exploring the answer – and this is what seems to me most important.

War of movement and war of positions

I will now move along a strange delta before going back to the central channel of the river, which is the question of the strength of the handful of people standing outside a house. I will start off by looking at the debate surrounding the idea of revolution that emerged in inter-war Marxism, with particular interest in the approach of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. At first it may look like a very strange leap, but this is a debate with rather contemporary resonances. The past does not pass: it is a very rich deposit of images and knowledge that can always be updated (resignified) from the problems and needs of the present.

Gramsci intervenes in the debate with a distinction between ‘war of movement’ and ‘war of positions’. To think about class struggle as a war and as such to use the language of military strategy was very typical in Marxism at that time. What is more, Gramsci writes from Mussolini’s prisons and under the necessity of continually inventing metaphors so as to avoid censorship. Paradoxically, resorting to this allusive and very often cryptic language, instead of the classic Marxist vocabulary, the future capacity for suggestion and inspiration in Gramsci’s work multiplied thousandfold.

Now, the key features of the ‘war of movement’ are: velocity, a minority character and the frontal attack. Gramsci is discussing here notions such as Trotsky’s ‘permanent revolution’, George Sorel’s general strike, Rosa Luxemburg’s worker uprising and, especially, the Leninist taking of power. These images of revolutionary change clash time and again with European and Western reality: the bloody repression of the Spartacist uprising in Germany (1918), the dismantling of the popular revolt of the worker councils in Italy during the ‘biennio rosso’ (1919-20), etc. To avoid the predictable effects of frustration and to keep actively aspiring toward social change, one must reimagine revolution.

The war of movement is only successful, Gramsci considers from prison, wherever society is relatively autonomous of the State and civil society (as he calls those institutions inter-related with state power: the judiciary, the media, etc.) is primitive and shapeless: for example, Russia. But in Western Europe, by contrast, civil society institutions are highly solid and act as “trenches and fortifications that protect the social order. It seems as if an economic catastrophe has opened a decisive breach in the enemy position, but it is merely a superficial effect and behind this there is an efficient line of defence”[ii].

Gramsci criticises “historical mysticism” (revolution as a miraculous flaring up) and economic determinism (the supposition that economic collapse will unleash the revolutionary process), and theorises another strategy, another image of social transformation: the ‘war of positions’. The key feature of the war of positions is the assertion and the development of a new vision of the world. In every gesture of everyday life, Gramsci says, there is an implicit vision of the world (or philosophy). The revolution spreads a new vision of the world (and hence other gestures) that little by little empties out the power of the old vision and finally displaces it. This process is what Gramsci calls ‘building hegemony’. There is no power that can last very long without hegemony, without control over the gestures of everyday life. It would be a domination without legitimacy, a power reduced to pure repression, to fear. The taking of power must be preceded, therefore, by a “taking” of civil society.

Christianity and Enlightenment.

To illustrate this other idea of revolution, Gramsci resorts to two examples: Christianity and the Enlightenment. It’s rather curious: he uses a religious reform and an intellectual change as models for thinking the political revolution he longs for. In both examples, the determining element of change is a new definition of reality.

In the case of Christianity, the idea that Christ has risen and there is life after death. Christianity organises itself around this “good news” that entails infiltrating all the cracks of the old pagan world. What is interesting here is that the first Christians ignore power. Rather they act in such a way that power finally comes to them, which happens with the conversion of the emperor Constantine in the fourth century AD. The lesson of the first Christians would be: do not fight directly for power, extend the new conception of the world of which you are the bearer and thus power will finally fall (into your hands).

In the case of the Enlightenment, the idea of equal dignity for all persons as beings endowed with reason. The Enlightenment is the movement that disseminates this idea, in salons, clubs and encyclopaedias. Finally, Gramsci says, when the French Revolution occurs, it has already been won. Those in power have no legitimacy because the new conception of the world has silently replaced the old one, leaving the powers of the Ancien Régime offside without them barely noticing. The lesson of the Enlightenment would be: revolution is won before the revolution is carried out, in the process of elaborating and spreading a new image of the world.

These are the examples mentioned by Gramsci, who died in prison in 1937. But the 20th century leaves us others no doubt a lot closer to us. Let’s consider for example the gay rights movement. A movement simultaneously visible and invisible, formal and informal, political and cultural, which completely transformed common perceptions about affective-sexual difference and ends up achieving as an effect changes on a legal level. Or the black movement for civil rights. Martin Luther King explained that the irresistible strength of the movement was the overcoming of profoundly interiorised feelings of inferiority through confrontation with the oppressors on an equal to equal basis (for example in campaigns of civil disobedience). This uprising of dignity would bring with it in addition changes to the laws of the country.

Thus the war of positions, in contrast to the war of movement, is an infiltration rather than an assault. A slow displacement rather than an accumulation of forces. A collective and anonymous movement rather than the operation of a centralised minority. A form of indirect, everyday and diffuse pressure rather than a concentrated and co-ordinated insurrection (though be careful: at no moment does Gramsci exclude  recourse to insurrection, but he subordinates it to the building of hegemony). And it is based above all on the elaboration and development of a new definition of reality, that is, explained in the words of the philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis, of “what counts and what does not count, what makes sense and what does not, a definition inscribed not in books, but in the very being of things: the acts of human beings, their relations, their organisation, their perception of what is, their affirmation and search for what is right, the materiality of the objects they produce, use and consume”.

The 15-M as cultural revolution

Let’s return now to the first scene, bearing in mind these notes of Gramsci’s. I think if fifty persons are able to stop an eviction it is because (to some extent) it has already been stopped. That is, because the 15M, understood as a new social climate and not as an organisation or structure, has redefined reality. What before could not be seen (the very fact that there are evictions) is now in sight. What before was seen (normalised) as a ‘routine procedure for mortgage non-payment’, now appears before us as something intolerable. What was presented to us as inevitable now appears as something contingent. The 15M climate places in crisis, in Gramsci’s terms, the civil society institutions associated with the State: police officers who refuse to attend evictions, magistrates who take advantage of any legal loophole in order to favour evictees, journalists and media outlets that empathise with and amplify their messages, etc.  Ultimately, fifty people, in direct connection with the 15M climate, both in the what (what they are struggling for) as in the how (the forms of struggle), are not merely fifty people. They are accompanied by millions, who are invisible. It is what philosopher Alain Badiou calls a “majoritarian minority”. An agent of change: capable of spreading it because it itself is contaminated.

We can thus define strength, returning to the question we asked at the beginning, as the capacity to redefine reality: what is decent and  indecent, what is possible and impossible, what is seen and unseen. The 15M climate no doubt does not have much power (whether physical, numerical, institutional or economic) but it does have strength. It is not merely a social or political change, but also -and most especially- a cultural (and even aesthetic) transformation: a modification in perception (the thresholds of what is seen and unseen), in sensibility (what we consider compatible with our existence or intolerable) in the idea of what is possible (“sí se puede“).

The importance of this has not been grasped very well by those who criticise the excessive “emotional” slant of the 15M, starting with the famous sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. Because it is precisely that which we vaguely call affective or emotional -that is, the unconscious basis of our life in common- that can move someone to consider someone else who lives far away as a neighbour and to stand outside her house to protect her from an eviction. The feeling that the life of each person is not confined to oneself but is rather interconnected with many other lives unknown (“we are the 99%“).

Politics is not first of all a matter of denunciation and raising awareness, because there is no straw that breaks the camel’s back, and bad things can be tolerated indefinitely. Rather it is a kind of changing of skin, through which we become sensitive to this or allergic to that. It does not entail convincing (speech) or seducing (marketing), but rather of opening up all kind of spaces to make an experience of another way of life, of another definition of reality, of another vision of the world. In the fight for hegemony, one’s skin -yours, mine, everyone’s- is the battlefield.


[i] In the original, fuerza, which equally translates as ‘force’.

[ii] Translator’s note: I have translated quotations as they appear in the original article, rather than seeking out the corresponding English language source

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