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Thomas Nail

Today, we are witnessing the return of revolution. This return, however, seems to be taking none of the traditional forms: the capture of the state, the political representation of the party, the centrality of the proletariat, or the leadership of the vanguard. The Zapatistas distinguish between two types of revolution: an upper case Revolution and a lower case revolution (Marcos 2004, 164).[1] The distinction between “upper case” and “lower case” concepts of “revolution” is emblematic of an indexical tension for radicals (Crimethinc).[2] On the one hand, the two words are phonetically identical and carry with them a unified history of social struggle. On the other hand, the words are semantically quite distinct and refer to two significantly different historical and political trajectories. In this way, the idea of “R/revolution” is less like an absolute signifier and more like a semantic Möbius strip that appears to be a continuous single-sided path and a discontinuous double-sided one at the same time.

Radicals today thus find themselves both unified and divided by two intertwined trajectories of revolution: the upper case and the lower case. Lower-case revolution can be defined by at least four revolutionary strategies that have become increasingly prevalent over the last twenty years. The first of these concerns an intersectional analysis of power, in which  revolution is not defined by a single axis of struggle (political, economic, cultural, or environmental). No single axis should be fought at the expense of the others. Accordingly, there should be no single privileged “subject of the revolution” (e.g. white, working class, heterosexual, men). The second strategy concerns prefiguration. Here, revolution is not aimed exclusively at creating counter institutions to oppose state policies, modes of production, cultural norms, or environmental destruction. Instead, and in addition to these institutions, contemporary revolutionary strategy emphasizes the need to create alternative non-state institutions that build (even if only locally) the kind of new social relations that revolutionaries would like to see “after” the revolution. Third, we find an emphasis on participatory politics, in which revolutionary strategy demands the direct participation of people in the decision-making processes that affect them. This strategy can be witnessed in the popular assemblies, consensus decision-making, and spokescouncils used around the world from the Zapatistas to the Occupy movement. Finally, the strategic commitment to horiziontalism has enabled revolutionary networks to link together local popular assemblies without any central authority, program, or hierarchy. Examples of this strategy can be seen in the World Social Forum and through the use of social media for decentralized local and global organizing.

Recent usages of these tactics in the Alter-Globalization Movement, the World Social Forum, the Indignados, the Occupy Movement, and elsewhere can be traced back to the influence and inspiration of what many radicals now call “the first post-modern revolutionaries,” the Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico (Burbach 1994, 113–24, 205).[3] Perhaps one explanation for the new prevalence of these tactics concerns global capitalism’s increasingly financial and neoliberal “development” model. In many ways, Mexico was one of the first laboratories for neoliberalism. It is thus of no surprise that it was also one of the first laboratories for new revolutionary strategy. Of course, the Zapatistas were not the first to use these four strategies; indeed, anarchists, feminists, and some indigenous groups have used them in some form or another since the nineteenth century. The important difference— howas David Graeber argues in “The New Anarchists”[4]—is that, until the mid to late ‘90s, these strategies were not nearly as pervasive (Graeber 2002, 61-73). However, even as the synthesis and spread of these four revolutionary strategies increased during the rise and influence of Zapatismo,[5] they have in no way eliminated the tension between upper and lower case “revolution” (Nail 2013, 20-35). If anything, and precisely because of the increased prevalence of lower case strategies, radicals today confront this tension more than ever.

Furthermore, one can discern at least two kinds of lower case revolutionary strategies: social strategies (like those listed above) and more individualist strategies (popularized by Crimethinc, Anti-Civilization Anarchists, and historically preceded by anarchist theorists like Max Stirner, Ernest Coeurderoy, and Joseph Déjacque) (Landstreicher et al. 2014).[6] Individualist revolutionary strategies are much less focused on building alternative institutions than on living revolutionary lives. If there is going to be any kind of revolution, they argue, it must be built from the ground up from our daily lives. As CrimethInc write, “revolution …  is not a single moment, but a way of living” (Crimethinc).[7] Or, as Raoul Vaneigem put it: “people who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints—such people have a corpse in their mouth” (Vaneigem 2001, 26).[8]

Despite their contemporary prominence in contemporary radical milieus, it’s important to recall that such anarchistic “lower case” strategies have not always defined “revolution.” Historically, the etymology and idea of revolution has quite literally “revolved” around the state. Although Aristotle does not use the word “revolution” (contrary to common mistranslations of the word μεταβολή, “change,” as “revolution”), his basic theory of political change remained the dominant one for thousands of years. For Aristotle, there are only two types of political change: change between types of state constitution (democracy, aristocracy, oligarchy, and monarchy) and change within a state constitution. Political theory from Machiavelli to Mao follows the kinetics of this basic statist definition of revolution: “a return to the state.” According to Aristotle, the constitution (καθίστημι) is the “setting down” of a point of relative stasis (στάσις)—from the same root (*stā-) as the word “state.” The stasis between conflicting forces produces a polis or city-state (πόλις)—from the same root (*pelə-, meaning “citadel” or “fortified high place”) as the word “politics.” Thus, for Aristotle, politics is the setting down of a walled city-state and revolutions are constitutional changes of this centrally bounded point: people turn against and turn around its central axis. The political motion of revolution has thus been theoretically and practically one of rotation around the central point of the state. As Mao writes, “the seizure of power by armed force, the settlement of the issue by war, is the central task and the highest form of revolution” (Mao [1938], 548).[9]

From the first usage of the English word “revolution” to describe political transformation in the sixteenth century to the twentieth-century socialist revolutions or near-revolutions in Russia, Germany, France, and China, Aristotle’s cyclical kinetics remained dominant. As Hannah Arendt writes,

The fact that the word ‘revolution’ meant originally restoration, hence something which to us is its very opposite, is not a mere oddity of semantics. The revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which to us appear to show all evidence of a new spirit, the spirit of the modern age, were intended to be restorations (Arendt 1963, 43).[10]

This is not to say that there were no non-state theories and practices at the time, just that they were not the most prevalent ones. So far, however, twenty-first century revolutionary struggles have tended to have more in common with the historically “lower case” non-state or anti-statist tradition associated with indigenous struggles, slave revolts, peasant heretics, pirates, and anarchists than they have with the Aristotelian model.

Ironically, this recent shift can be attributed in part to the very “success” of the classical “upper case” statist model. The more the revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth century “returned to the state,” the more they exposed the political limitations of both the state-form and of “the party,” the dominant form for the revolutionary occupation of the state. Theoretically, the party was intended not only to “abolish itself as the proletariat … and abolish also the state as state,” as Engels wrote (Engles 1978, 713),[11] but also to secure the “conditions under which the state can be abolished,” as Lenin later added (Lenin 1932, 94).[12] Historically, however, the use of the state to abolish either itself or its conditions of possibility has failed. Consequently, the party has become perhaps the most widely discredited aspect of Marxism. It is accused of reducing revolutionary politics to state authoritarianism and bureaucracy, of recasting revolutionary theory as dogma, and of subordinating political imagination to disciplined order. In the name of the revolutionary party-state, all manner of the statist atrocities have been committed (political executions, labor camps, nationalist wars, propaganda campaigns, and so on). If radical activists today no longer talk about the class party, military-style discipline, the vanguard, or the capture of the state (or if they reject them explicitly as Richard Day and the Zapatistas do),[13] it is precisely because these strategies have been so discredited by the revolutionary experiments of the twentieth century (Day 2005, 45).

The differences between the cyclical, upper case definition of revolution and the lower case one illuminate two important strategic and kinetic interpretations of the word “revolution” that are still in tension today. On the one hand, the upper-case definition is based on motion around a static center and the cyclical transformation of its state-constitution. It is essentially a rotational and centrifugal theory of political motion. What returns in upper case revolution is the identity of the state form—even if the constitution has changed. Revolution thus marks a difference internal to the identity of the state-form. On the other hand, the lower-case definition of “revolution” is based on the motion of decentralized vectors assembled together in waves. Given their non-statist tendencies, these revolutionary movements behave more like trajectories or directions without static end points. They pursue their aims without a central command, vanguard, or program. Instead, their local movements are inspired or influenced by each other as by the common force of a wave that moves through them. In this case, what returns in revolution is not the identity of the circle but the differential process of the returning itself. Here, revolution is not a difference internal to the identity of the state-form but a differential process external to the state and thus capable of many other social forms. In this case, revolution returns not to its starting point (the state) but to somewhere else further along a decentralized trajectory. The definition of lower case revolution proposed by many on today’s radical Left reveals a strategic decision to break with the political motion of the cycle and affirm the historically minor political motion of decentralized differentiation.

By engaging this etymological and historical difference, today’s radicals might be in a better position to reinterpret other classical political institutions like the party, the constitution, and the state without falling prey to their cyclical dangers. After all, non-state or anti-state definitions of revolution must still grapple with existing party and state power at some point—as their Möbius doppelgänger. It is unlikely that the state will simply dissolve because alternative institutions have prefigured a future in which it does not exist. Under such conditions, it remains unclear how to reinterpret not only the concept of revolution but other political forms as well. Many theorists and activists have begun experimenting with such redefinitions, including Alain Badiou’s anti-party, Daniel Bensaïd’s New Anti-Capitalist Party, Hugo Chavez’s revolutionary Bolivarianism, and the Zapatista’s Other Campaign. Through this process, we are likely to uncover historical resources to facilitate the theoretical and practical return to forms of “revolution” that do not succumb to the traditional state-form and its horrors. As these projects advance, the battle between lower and upper case definitions is likely to be a zone of productive conflict and genuinely new political emergence.


See also: Conspiracy, Demand, Future, Hope, Politics, Prefiguration, Radical, Victory, War.



  • Arendt, Hannah. 1963. On Revolution New York: Viking Press
  • Burbach, Roger. 1994. uRoots of the Postmodern Rebellion in Chiapas,” New Left ReviewP;
  • Burbach, Roger. March 1996 “For a Zapatista Style Postmodernist Perspective,” Monthly Review, 47: 4-41;
  • Carrigan, Ana. 1995. ’Chiapas: The First Post-Modern Revolution’, The Fletcher Forum, 19 (1): 71-98;
  • Day, Richard. 2005. Gramsci is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements. London: Pluto Press
  • Graeber, David. 2002. “New Anarchists,” New Left Review, 13:61–73.
  • Landstreicher, Wolfi; Wilbur, Shawn and Stone, Vincent. 2014. trans. Disruptive Elements: The Extremes of French Anarchistm Ardent Press
  • Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich, 1932. State and Revolution New York: International Publishers
  • Mao, Zedong. 1938 “Problems of War and Strategy,” in Mao’s Road to Power: Revolutionary Writings 1912-1949, Volume 1, edited by Schram, Stuart R., and Hodes Nancy Jane. 1992 Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe
  • Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich The Marx-Engels Reader, second edition, edited by Tucker, Robert C. 1978, New York: Norton
  • Nail, Thomas. 2013. “Zapatismo and the Origins of Occupy,” Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory, vol. 12 no. 3: 20–35.
  • See Crimethinc, “Why We’re Right & You’re Wrong: Towards a Non-D(en)ominational Revolution,” Harbinger 4, http://www.crimethinc.com/texts/harbinger/infighting.php.
  • See Crimethinc, “Why We’re Right & You’re Wrong: Towards a Non-D(en)ominational Revolution,” Harbinger 4, http://www.crimethinc.com/texts/harbinger/infighting.php.
  • Subcomandante 2004 Ya Basta!: Ten Years of the Zapatista Uprising, ed. Žiga Vodovnik. Oakland: AK Press.
  • Vaneigem, Rauol. 2001 The Revolution of Everyday Life, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. London, Rebel Press
[1] Subcomandante Marcos, Ya Basta!: Ten Years of the Zapatista Uprising, ed. Žiga Vodovnik, (Oakland: AK Press, 2004), 164.
[2] See Crimethinc, “Why We’re Right & You’re Wrong: Towards a Non-D(en)ominational Revolution,” Harbinger 4, http://www.crimethinc.com/texts/harbinger/infighting.php.
[3] Roger Burbach “Roots of the Postmodern Rebellion in Chiapas,” New Left Review, 205 (May/June 1994), 113–24. Roger Burbach, “For a Zapatista Style Postmodernist Perspective,” Monthly Review, 47 (March 1996), 4–41. Ana Carrigan, ’Chiapas: The First Post-Modern Revolution’, The Fletcher Forum, 19 (1) 1995: 71–98. Tim Golden, “Revolution Rocks: Thoughts of Mexico’s First Postmodern Guerrilla Commander,” New York Times Review of Books, 8 April 2001, <http://www.nytimes.com/books/01/04/08/ reviews/010408.08goldent.html> (accessed 3 March 2001).
[4] David Graeber, “New Anarchists,” New Left Review, 13 (January/ February 2002), 61–73.
[5] Thomas Nail, “Zapatismo and the Origins of Occupy,” Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory, vol. 12 no. 3 (Spring 2013): 20–35.
[6] Wolfi Landstreicher, Shawn Wilbur, and Vincent Stone, trans. Disruptive Elements: The Extremes of French Anarchistm (Ardent Press, 2014).
[7] See Crimethinc, “Why We’re Right & You’re Wrong: Towards a Non-D(en)ominational Revolution,” Harbinger 4, http://www.crimethinc.com/texts/harbinger/infighting.php.
[8] Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (London, Rebel Press, 2001). 26.
[9] Mao Zedong, “Problems of War and Strategy,” [1938] in Mao’s Road to Power: Revolutionary Writings 1912-1949, Volume 1, edited by Stuart R. Schram and Nancy Jane Hodes (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1992), 548.
[10] Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Viking Press, 1963), 43.
[11] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Marx-Engels Reader, second edition, edited by Tucker, Robert C., (New York: Norton, 1978), 713.
[12] Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, State and Revolution (New York: International Publishers, 1932), 94.
[13] Richard Day, Gramsci is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements (London: Pluto Press, 2005), 45.



Translated from English to Turkish: Oğul Köseoğlu




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