What Revolutionary Action Means Today

“Pessimism is the mood inspired by a reasoned conviction that only a revolutionary change can ward off the consequences that are implicit in the tendencies in contemporary American society, but that such a revolution … is neither possible nor prudent – if by revolution we mean launching a campaign of violent insurrection or civil war. Revolutions of that nature are plainly pathological under contemporary conditions of interdependency.

Democrats need a new conception of revolution. Its text should be John Locke not Karl Marx, because the problem is not to show that a social class should seize power – no social class in an advanced society can pretend to the universality of right which Marx presupposed in the workers of his day – but to reinvent the forms and practices that will express a democratic conception of collective life.

Locke is best remembered for the argument that when those who rule seem bent on acquiring ‘Absolute Power over the Lives, Liberties and Estates of the People’, their power, which they hold on trust from the people, reverts, and the people are free to fashion new institutions. The right to revolution is not solely a right to overturn and destroy institutions but to fashion new ones because those who rule have perverted the old ones. The right to revolution is the right to creat new forms.”

Sheldon Wolin (1992) “What Revolutionary Action Means Today” in C. Mouffe, ed., Dimensions of Radical Democracy. Verso, London.

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