Note on the discourse of “political revolution”

Bill Woodrow, Silver, 1994.


Criticism of the exceptionality of the concept

The discourse of “political revolution” is a reduction of the concept of revolution. Let us remember that the concept of revolution comes from the work of Copernicus. Well then: without the press revolution (Gutenberg), there would be no Copernican scientific revolution; without scientific revolution there would be no encyclopedism; without encyclopedism there would be no French revolution; without the French Revolution there would have been no subsequent political revolutions. Currently, there is a great revolution underway, which is the digital revolution, and which completely changes the grammar of the productive forces (as was Gutenberg's revolution). So, the assumption that the validity of the revolution failed or was exhausted does not fit. In fact, we are in the middle of the turmoil of one of them.

The importance that Marx gave to the industrial revolution and the amplification of the productive forces by the development of machinery is well known.[I]. In the dialectic between productive forces and production relations, the latter are always behind the former, seeking to capture the productive increment (of value) generated by the technical transformation. The political revolution of the proletariat seeks to resolve the mismatch between the forces of labor and property relations by moving to communism, through socialism. The political revolution advocated by Marx makes an adjustment between the productive forces generated by the industrial revolution and the property relations that hinder it. And once again: without the scientific revolution of the XNUMXth century there would be no industrial revolution of the XNUMXth century and we would not have the production of a “proletariat” which, more than an agent, is the driving force of the political revolution. Engels himself recognized this fact when he called the Marxist version “scientific socialism”.

There are those who defend the ongoing digital revolution as the fourth industrial revolution. The first was the introduction of the steam engine, at the end of the 68th century (exactly the one studied by Marx); the second, at the end of the XNUMXth century, came with the rise of the petroleum combustion engine and the introduction of electricity (and Lenin famously said that revolution meant soviets plus electrification); the third, at the end of the XNUMXth century, arrived with electronics and automation (and was accompanied by the revolts of May XNUMX). The fourth revolution is digitalization, which is under way. But, in fact, the digital transformation, as it is commonly called, is not just the introduction of a new technology, but above all a new productive and reproductive grammar. It is as important a revolution as was the invention of writing (which created currency and numbers, as well as empires and the collection of taxes). The digital transformation amalgamates and is strengthened by the information revolution. This became possible, on the one hand, with the Mathematical Theory of Communication of Claude Shannon (1948) and, on the other hand, with Alan Turing's theory of computation from the 30s onwards (the so-called Turing machines).

The emergence of the computer is to digital language what printing was to the written alphabet. The convergence of the two takes place around the concept of “bit”, the binary digit. Binary arithmetic was consolidated by Leibniz at the end of the XNUMXth century. And binary logic by George Boole in the mid-nineteenth century, when translating classical Aristotelian logic into the logic of circuits (and from there, later, it could be “translated”[ii] through electrical circuits, which allowed the emergence of electronics). I review these dates and names just to show that technical, epistemological or scientific revolutions never happen overnight, but based on a series of long-term historical contributions. Nor, however, is there a linear series of knowledge accumulation. What happens is that competing lines of epistemological development meet in an artifact (like the computer), which combines them in a highly productive way, or in a theory that, by associating different and apparently disconnected lines of research, solves a specific problem and allows a leap of technical development.

In turn, a scientific revolution, which Thomas Kuhn described in the form of a “paradigm shift”, almost always occurs around an “anomaly”, an unforeseen and “off-the-curve” event that, by not being able to be assimilated by the hegemonic theory of normal science, forces the paradigm to transform[iii].

Charles Darwin's theory of evolution was itself revolutionary, as it completely changed the teleological biological paradigm of his time (ie, submitted to an end), to the paradigm of “random” evolution by mutations. Based on this theory, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould preferred to call the concept “punctuated equilibrium” to describe dramatic and irreversible transformations in environmental niches. Punctuated equilibrium means that life forms stabilize for reasonably long temporalities to change thanks to a sudden transformation in the geological and climatic conditions of the planet (being that this sudden transformation could last a few thousand years, given the difference in scale between geological time and the biological clock of the species)[iv].

None of these concepts of revolution, with the exception of politics, is teleologically oriented towards an end. In none of these cases is there a “vanguard” conduction of the process. Rather, it is the opposite: as soon as a paradigm transformation (epistemological, technical or biological) takes place, it is rather the “agents” that seem to be driven by the irreversible course of history or natural evolution. The agents' actions are either adaptive or take advantage of the possibilities opened up by revolutions. As we will see later, a revolution does not necessarily advance from a “lower” to a “higher” stage, but there is always an increase in variety and complexity. [v].

However, in the case of political revolutions, there is a belief in the process being conducted rather than conducting. Hence, one of the most distressing issues for theorists of revolution is precisely to identify the “agents” that will be the conductors of the historical revolutionary process. Without these agents, it seems that revolution lacks the necessary impetus to come to the historical surface. And without that momentum, the revolutionary momentum would be lost. On the other hand, the structural “isomorphy” between scientific and political revolutions is a topic of long discussion. If the term began to be used by Copernicus to describe the complete rotation of the stars, in the 1640th century it was transplanted to the political field with the so-called “English Revolution of XNUMX”. In the XNUMXth century, the term was used again in the scientific field when Condorcet called Lavoisier's work a “revolution in chemistry”. Kant consecrates the term when writing about the “Copernican revolution”, transferring the term from the movement of the stars to the epistemological transformation of the theory[vi]. The political revolution must also presuppose a total social “paradigm shift”, to the point where, as Thomas Kuhn would say, after the revolution the predominant feeling is of living in “another world”.[vii]. There is then here a question worthy of attention and answer. Would there be a “hierarchy” between the various modes of revolutionary development? Would the political revolution be the one to trigger a whole series of other revolutions, precisely because it does not depend on an arbitrary anomaly or on a contingent encounter between competing branches of knowledge, but which relies on the leadership of the determined will of revolutionary agents? The political revolution would then have the exceptionality of being able to place a humanly discernible “purpose” (virtue) on arbitrary evolution (fortune)[viii].

Hence, around the political revolution, we often have the utopian discussion about the new social and existential relations that the revolution unleashes, the “new man” and the “new woman”, the epistemological cuts that translate the revolutionary change in the conditions of knowledge, the extraordinary technological achievements that the liberation of the productive forces entails, and even a new conception of nature in science, in accordance with the new revolutionary society. Political revolutions prefigure a new humanity, a new nature and a new science.

I would like to criticize here, not the concept of political revolution, but the notion of its exceptionality compared to other revolutionary processes, and above all the primacy of leadership that this exceptionality supposes. This critique discerns at least four major epistemological problems in the concept of political revolution, which hinder its emergence:

(1) The belief in the teleological political will: the idea that the human will is the motive for action was disallowed by psychoanalysis. What guides the agent's action is not the conscious will, but the unconscious desire that can only be sought “retrospectively”, through a method of anamnesis and interpretation. The revolution does not depend on the enlightened will of the agents, whether individuals or parties. We have also seen that Althusser locates this criticism in Machiavelli's political theory as well, since virtue is subject to the arbitrariness of fortune. No political revolution has depended on the individualized will of any agent, but rather is the result of the millionaire contribution of countless agents, distributed across different generations. Eventually it is the example of a deceased agent who will serve as a guide to succeeding generations. However, no revolution came from the head of a single “genius”, be it Galileo or Lenin, much less from the leadership of a party. Even in the case of Gutenberg or Copernicus, the work of both was not the revolution “in itself”, but resulted from a historical unfolding of their contributions with that of many other researchers. None of them believed they were making a “revolution”. Copernicus believed that the revolution was that of the stars.

(2) The belief in the “instantaneous event”: the revolution is certainly an event, in the sense of a historical discontinuity, but the event is not instantaneous. Even if the “shot” is associated with a historical event, the temporality of revolutions includes a time before and after and can take tens, hundreds or thousands of years. And even in the case of millennia, from the cosmic point of view, it will have been an instant. The temporality depends on the observation scale. Revolutions are not usually of the "taking of the Bastille" type, as they do not happen overnight. They certainly don't last just the span of a generation. As the Chinese say, it is still too early to talk about the French Revolution.

(3) The belief in overcoming (aufhebung) from an earlier, less developed stage: revolution does not mean the teleological passage between stages of development. The very notion of scientific progress and the conception of the Modern era as a temporal advance contaminated the notion of political revolutions. However, a more appropriate model of revolution is that of catastrophe, that is, of historical irreversibility, passing through a “point of no return” and the structural loss of previous conditions. This means neither the notion of gradual or incremental evolution nor evolution through stages. Nor does the post-revolutionary scenario signify a better, “more mature” stage of humanity as in Kant’s notion of Enlightenment.[ix]. At this point, Yuval Harari is right to say that the agricultural revolution was a catastrophe for the hunter-gatherer way of life.[X]. The agricultural revolution spawned slavery (since peasants could not flee their land in case of invasion by larger tribes). The writing revolution created currency, empires, and monotheism. The press revolution spawned fratricidal religious wars. The scientific revolution amplified productivity to entropic levels that put the sustainability of biomes at a critical point. The revolution does not bring a morally or ethically higher stage than the previous stage. It creates its own legality.

(4) The belief in revolutionary “purity”, as a movement of “purification”: in fact, revolutions certainly represent greater complexity, since, as catastrophes, they mean fragmentation and diversification. Motion is the opposite of debugging. In fact, each normalized phase of a human historical process presents a long-term condition of metastability. This means a degree of provisional stability, which is kept “away from balance” by social activity. Until a “bifurcation” appears in the step, which is an oscillation (or superposition) between two or more alternative levels. This is a process that resembles the dissipative structures studied by the chemist Ilya Prigogine (1987). This bifurcation, which takes place at a critical point, is taken as “revolutionary” because it is irreversible. Varieties increase and with them the complexity needed to deal with the new situation[xi]. Furthermore, revolutions are not successive stages: the press revolution did not succeed the writing revolution, as they took different paths to later merge. The genomic revolution (genetic engineering) is the daughter of the digital revolution (which made it possible to understand DNA as a “code”). And in turn, the current digital revolution is parallel to the quantum revolution and, later on with the quantum computer, all these revolutions, digital, quantum and genomics, will converge in a single revolution.

However, placing the revolution in terms of complexity theory, in a model of indetermination and that does not assume it as a direct consequence of the conscious activity of agents, does not remove its emancipatory character. The post-revolutionary stage, as the confluence of several bifurcations, has more “variety”, that is, a greater degree of freedom. If it is true, for example, that the agricultural revolution was a catastrophe in relation to the hunter-gatherer way of life, on the other hand, it allowed an increase in the population density of human households and at the same time created new symbioses between humans and non-humans. -humans, animals and plants. The inevitable increase in variety needs to be compensated with an increase in complexity (which is basically a reduction in variety through the establishment of new redundancies). It is the invention of complexity that must now be taken as emancipatory.

Finally, one must take Thomas Kuhn's warning seriously: every revolution is invisible. When one perceives the revolution, it is because it has already begun, that is, its irreversible historical process is already underway. And this is not morally good or bad, but the emergence of new standards of morality. The revolution “happens”.

* William Preger is an electrical engineer from FURNAS and a doctor in literary theory from UERJ. He is author of Fables of Science: scientific discourse and speculative fables (Ed. Gramma).



ALTHUSSER, Louis. Politics and History. From Machiavelli to Marx. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 2007.

HARARI, Yuval Noah. Sapiens. A brief history of mankind. Porto Alegre: LP&M, 2016.

KUHN, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Editions, 1970.

PROGOGINE, Ilya and STENGERS, Isabelle. The New Covenant. Brasilia: University of Brasilia, 1987.

SHANNON, Claude. A Mathematical Theory of Communication. The Bell System Technical Journal, 1948.

SIMONDON, Gilbert. On the mode of existence of technical objects. Rio de Janeiro: Counterpoint, 2020.




[ii] Reference to the concept of transduction by Gilbert Simondon (2020), that is, the establishment of a metastable relationship between two scales with different voltage levels.

[iii] or the anomaly is assimilated by the emergence of a new paradigm, incommensurable with the previous one. KUHN, 1970.

[iv] On punctuated equilibrium,

[v] In fact, adaptation consists of adjusting organizational complexity to the new variety.

[vi] About this oscillation between the use of the term revolution in science and politics, a good reference is the entry in the Stanford encyclopedia:

[vii] "In so far as their only recourse to that world is through what they see and do, we may want to say that after a revolution scientists are responding to a different world” (KUHN, 1907, Revolutions as chances of world vision, p. 111).

[viii] This is Machiavelli's reflection that begins modern political thought by lecturing on the relationship between the arbitrariness of fortune (chance) and the firmness of virtue (enlightened will). The virtue (of the Prince) is the one capable of discerning among many factors, which are the decisive ones and moving forward with them. But as Althusser observes, virtue is subordinate to fortune (chance): “And we find, behind the theory of virtù, a second stratum of reflection, which concerns what I could simply designate as an observation of the diversity of characters: there are fearful, audacious, etc., there are therefore men marked by their nature and incapable of changing it, being in such a way that your success then becomes pure product of fortune. In other words, the radical exteriority of virtù in relation to fortune it inverts the very terms of the problem. The very voluntarism of virtù is subject to the irrational necessity of fortune” (ALTHUSSER, IV. Fortuna e virtù: a theory of action? In ALTHUSSER, 2007, p. 243).

[ix] Immanuel Kant What is Clarification (1784). English version available at

[X] “The fraud of the agricultural revolution” (HARARI, p.87).

[xi] As an example, the 'geological revolution' of the fracture of the Pangea continent 200 million years ago. The fractionation of the previously unitary continent pushed the tectonic plates apart and allowed an increase in climatic and biological diversity.

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