Telescoping Passive Revolution
Henri Lefebvre: Rural Sociology, Ground Rent and the Politics of Land

Deflected Passive Revolution

by Adam David Morton on March 4, 2016

TahrirIn preparing for an engagement with Brecht De Smet’s new book Gramsci on Tahrir: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Egypt, I thought it would be a good idea to dust-down a few earlier blog posts of mine in order to provide a ground-clearing exercise on thinking about Antonio Gramsci’s concept and condition of passive revolution. My goal in this endeavour is therefore to re-blog a series of four posts all revolving around the notion of passive revolution.

The fourth in the series, entitled ‘Defelected Passive Revolution’, originally appeared on the Journal of Australian Political Economy blog spot (25 May 2014). The post appears without any changes. The aim is then to develop a wider commentary on passive revolution, as well as Brecht De Smet’s important new book, in subsequent contributions to Progress in Political Economy.

As reblogged from the Journal of Australian Political Economy blogspot, I noted that some time ago Tony Cliff developed a theorisation of deflected permanent revolution to consider how state power, notably in post-colonial conditions of uneven and combined development, becomes the driver for capital accumulation. One result was the deflection of permanent revolution as the means of socialist transformation from bourgeois rule. This built on Leon Trotsky’s work ‘The Permanent Revolution’ where he wrote of ‘the inner connections’ linking the theory of permanent revolution, or the revolution in permanence, to states that experience ‘belated bourgeois development’, especially colonial and semi-colonial states.

As explained in my book Revolution and State in Modern Mexico, the notion of ‘deflected permanent revolution’, derived from Leon Trotsky, is consonant with the concept of passive revolution as developed by Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci argued in the Prison Notebooks that mobilisation through passive revolution involved ‘the formation of an ever more extensive ruling class’ through ‘the gradual but continuous absorption, achieved by methods which varied in their effectiveness, of the active elements produced by allied groups—and even of those which came from antagonistic groups and seemed irreconcilably lost’. Here the state serves as the locus of accumulation and the construction of the political order of capital.

One way of regarding the condition and concept of passive revolution, as outlined in my blog post ‘What is this thing called passive revolution?’, is to reflect on how elements of an insurrectionary force become domesticated, which may involve a dialectical relation between processes of revolution from above and processes of revolution from below.

A passive revolution—or deflected permanent revolution—is therefore secured through the political dominance of state capitalism. But what about considering the antithesis of these circumstances? How can a sense of fatalism or historical defeatism within an understanding of passive revolution be avoided? How can we dialectically consider a conception of deflected passive revolution, a necessary breaking of deflected permanent revolution, to rethink active revolution today?

In addressing these questions, my focus here ranges across four recent articles that in different aspects are engaged in theorising processes of what I have termed deflected passive revolution. These are:

  1. Peter Thomas’ article on hegemony, passive revolution and the modern Prince published in Thesis Eleven;
  2. Ryan Brading’s article on radical revolution and passive revolution in Venezuela published in Latin American Perspectives;
  3. Brecht De Smet’s article on revolution, counter-revolution, and passive revolution in Egypt published in Science & Society; and
  4. Chris Hesketh’s article on the production of state spaces of passive revolution and counter-spaces of resistance in Mexico published in Critical Sociology.

thomas-gramscianmomentMy purpose is to raise the collective profile of these outstanding contributions to the debate on passive revolution and in so doing try to highlight how they all offer a realisation of different conditions of ‘deflected passive revolution’. Said otherwise, these contributions are essential reading on how to think about the conditions of possibility, theoretically and practically, for revolution in the twenty-first century. That the four pieces in the spotlight have all been published in leading heterodox journals, outside the suffocating conformity of mainstream political science, is also of some significance.

First, Peter Thomas provides a crucial reconnaissance of the theory of passive revolution as an important and necessary coda to his prize-winning book The Gramscian Moment. Significantly, he links the concept of passive revolution to hegemony, as part of a ‘dialectical chain’ of integrally related moments. Rather than deducing hegemony from passive revolution, driving a wedge between their internal relationship, Thomas outlines how passive revolution is a deformation of hegemonic politics. As Thomas states, ‘as an analytical concept, passive revolution was a strategic intervention that aimed to highlight an historical failure of hegemony’ (original emphasis). Broadly, then, the notion of passive revolution indicates the inability of a bourgeois political project to realise fully the political practice of hegemony, not as an irrevocable and immobilised outcome of capitalist modernity, but as an incomplete process. Passive revolution therefore stands as a condition of the historical formation of modern state power and capitalist modernity in specific instances and circumstances. However, for Thomas, there needs to be a relational – dialectical – integration of the polarities of hegemony and passive revolution. It would be antithetical to Gramsci’s theorising of political modernity to regard passive revolution and hegemony as separate conditions, they should be regarded dialectically in order to understand the continuum of passive revolution.

Crucially, Thomas indicates that for Gramsci ‘the concept of passive revolution needed to be confronted by the potential for a process of de-pacification and active revolution by and within the action of the popular classes’ (my emphasis). As the antithesis of passive revolution, then, Gramsci considered forms of collective agency – the modern Prince – as part of an expansive revolutionary process in movement. One can add that engaging a strategy of deflected passive revolution would precisely involve these forms of agency of active revolution. At the end of the article, Thomas therefore stakes out the claim that Gramsci provides a prefigurative vocabulary with which to understand contemporary resistance and rebellion, as also mentioned in this blog post on ‘Gramsci & Political Economy Today’. This thread is left hanging but the Latin Rebellion or the Arab Spring would be significant backdrops to consider, which is where the looming of my analysis now turns.

la_revolucion_bolivariana_no_se_vaHere, the article by Ryan Brading is important in focusing on the different phases of the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela, tracing a periodisation of the different moments of its unfolding in and around the events of 2002. Supplementing his book Populism and Venezuela, Brading focuses on factions linked to Luis Miquilena (a moderate supporter of Hugo Chávez) and Pedro Carmona, installed as President after Chávez’s detention in the coup d’état of 2002, that attempted to engineer a passive revolution. In his view, this strategy from above was aiming to restore neoliberal practices in such a way that the new Bolivarian state could have claimed to be a revolution, promoting social development for Venezuela’s lower classes, while serving the interests of the dominant classes as engineers of its formation.

Instead, attempts to displace Chávez brought to the surface class-based political and economic disparities that crystallised the Bolivarian hegemonic project through a radical revolution (or deflected permanent revolution) from below based on popular will. Chávez then exchanged the passive political position that had helped him win the presidency previously for a radical one. As Brading states, ‘the Miquilenistas (moderate Chavistas) had engineered a passive revolution that in fact was nothing but a reconfigured/revised neoliberal strategy concealed in a populist discourse of change and progress’. The development of differences between moderate Miquilenistas and radical Chavistas meant that Venezuela averted a passive revolution with conditions providing Chávez with a hegemonic framework to galvanise radical revolution consisting of a variety of social programmes – including the Barrio Adentro healthcare programme – in previously marginal urban and rural areas. A deflected passive revolution was replaced with a radical revolution, crystallising a new and expansive hegemonic order based on the populism of the Bolivarian Revolution, which is now under threat. Elsewhere, as Massimo Modonesi indicates in his book Subalternity, Antagonism, Autonomy, the modality of passive revolution in Venezuela is open to debate as to whether the balance of class forces in struggle will define the process from below in active revolution or whether there will be a reflux towards depoliticisation and re-subalternisation as features of passive revolution.

Brecht De Smeti_am_tahrir_take_2’s analysis of revolution and counter-revolution in Egypt starts with the notion of revolution deriving from Leon Trotsky in The History of the Russian Revolution as ‘the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny’. His article contours the historical formation of modern state power in Egypt, tracing its entrance into capitalist modernity as a series of passive revolutions. More recently, his attention turns to understanding the revolution of January 25 and its counter-revolutionary appropriation as alternating moments of one and the same process of revolution-restoration, or passive revolution, in Egypt. Here the role of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) is highlighted in leading and controlling the revolutionary process, defending its own particular interests and managing the expectations of the popular masses, by sacrificing Hosni Mubarak.

The Caesarist intervention had thrown the burden of political leadership upon the Armed Forces, and while the generals wished to fortify their economic and political clout within the ruling bloc, they had neither the capacity nor the will to develop hegemony over the whole of society. Instead, the generals preferred to rule by “civil proxy”.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Mohamed Morsi and the remnants of the military in Ahmed Shafiq therefore represented two wings of the counter-revolution. Morsi’s victory but subsequent inability to absorb opponents in a form of Islamism, leading to his downfall at the hands of a coup d’état, has ‘emphasised the success of the capitalist classes and the ‘deep state’ in deflecting popular revolutionary demands for democracy and the redistribution of wealth’ (my emphasis). The rise of President Adly Mansour, head of the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) backed by the military, signals for De Smet a derailing of the radical popular demands and a reinforcing of the current process of restoration. This is the deferral of deflected passive revolution.

escuelitaFinally, Chris Hesketh adds something highly original to this survey by offering a spatially sensitive account of the sub-national articulation of passive revolution as a means of constructing state space in Chiapas, Mexico. This historical geographical sociological approach focuses on the production of state space as well as processes of counter-spaces of resistance in the form of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN). In so doing capitalism is revealed as a multi-scalar phenomenon to distinguish the production of space affecting the sub-national scale (Chiapas), national development (Mexico), and geopolitics (global political economy). For Hesketh, ‘space is thus not an empty stage onto which social relations are projected, but rather it is these relations themselves that contribute to the changing mise-en-scène of development. It is therefore through a reading of the spatial that the power relations of society can be uncovered’.

Once again passive revolution comes to the fore as a class-driven process that involves a state-led reorganisation of social relations so as to maintain or restore class dominance while diffusing subaltern class pressure. The historical geographical conditions of passive revolution are traced by Hesketh throughout Mexico and Chiapas focusing on land reform. The latter, in the arrangement of the ejido or state-granted communal property, became spaces of passive revolution: or, spatial projects that partially satisfied peasant demands for land as well as allowing the expansion of capitalism alongside defending the interests of the agrarian bourgeoisie. Nevertheless the revocation of such land reform conditions sparked the Zapatista rebellion that has witnessed the emergence of counter-spaces aiming to develop a new territorial form of politics and autonomous organising in rejecting the old geographical patternings of state power. Most recently, the initiative of the Escuelita Zapatista (Little Zapatista Schools), launched in August/December 2013 and January 2014, have attempted to challenge moves to re-territorialise communities under state power by re-launching autonomous education initiatives. Today more than ever, the class struggle in deflecting conditions of passive revolution is inscribed in space, as Chris Hesketh also traces in a related blog post on subcomandante Marcos’ recent communiqué here.

What these contributions show against the condition of permanent passive revolution is the importance of avoiding a degree of fatalism in challenging processes of capitalist restoration. This could be called the struggle over deflected passive revolution. As Gramsci stated in relation to passive revolution there is a dialectic process that ‘presupposes, indeed postulates as necessary a vigorous anti-thesis which can present intransigently all its potentialities for development’. The rest is up to us.

Adam David Morton
Adam David Morton is Professor of Political Economy in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney.

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