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Is it Shameful to Be a Revolutionary?

Major intentional social changes as a rational political perspective


This essay is an attempt to think anew one of the traditional key issues in political thought: should we change the political system or reform it. I am not trying to prove that one of the parties in the historical dispute was right after all. Instead, I endeavour to reflect what we should think of the issue in the light of our present situation and perspectives opened up by some contemporary social theories.

The paper at hand is a preliminary work for a future larger publication. Therefore, it contains many tentative thoughts and probably unfounded thinking experiments. That is also why my references to the relevant literature are very limited. Accordingly, I am more that grateful for any hints, comments and criticisms.

My starting point is the observation that there is a conspicuous mismatch between the state of the world and the prevalent political praxis: we live in the world of actual and potential major social changes but the mainstream non-clandestine politics is totally concentrated to minuscule reforms.

Major, in many ways revolutionary social changes are not a strange thing for an inhabitant of today’s world. So-called globalization means unprecedented concentration of wealth, information resources and power to a few persons and organizations in a few countries. In less than two decades a substantial part of human communication has been made dependent on mobile phones and the Internet. The majority of the still living women and men have witnessed how a whole socio-political system, expected to persist for centuries, collapsed in 1989-1991.

On top of this, it seems that some forces connected to the humanity are pulling the rug from under the feet of the present " and wide variety of other conceivable " social systems: the global climate is changing rapidly along with the whole chemical, electromagnetic and biological composition of our daily environment.

Desired major changes

In this situation it is natural that many people wish that all these rapid changes would stop and they would be let live in their old ways. However, they do not always realize that this halt would constitute a major social change in itself. Yet probably the majority of people have wishes which go even further: they yearn for a decisively more ecological, just, democratic and equal world. Many opinion polls all over the world tell about these wishes.

E.g. in the Gallup International’s millennium survey conducted in 1999 " probably the world’s largest opinion poll " a clear majority of respondents thought that environmental protection is more important than economic growth1. This is a radical preference in the era when the environment is systemically sacrificed at the altar of the economy. In the same vein, the great majority of Finns have repeatedly over a couple of decades been of the opinion that “striving to continuous economic growth man will gradually destroy the Nature and ultimately himself”2.

The same applies to global justice. The rise of global justice movement, which is erroneously called “anti-globalization movement”, is an indication of deep dissatisfaction on the present situation. Of course, those active in movements are nowadays always a tiny minority, but according to global opinion polls, half of the people support the movement and the majority its goals3. In the Gallup International’s recent global poll conducted in 68 countries, poverty or the gap between rich and poor is considered the main problem facing the world4.

There is also a widespread perception that political systems are not at all as democratic as they are desired and proclaimed to be. Two thirds of the respondents in Gallup’s global opinion poll say that “my country is not governed by the will of the people”. This even though most of the 60 participating countries were formal democracies. The dissatisfaction did not concentrate to the poor countries: the majorities of the populations of Western Europa and North America feel also that their “country is not ruled by the will of the people” even though generally they do endorse “the election process as being free and fair”.5 In a more recent global poll, about half of the people did not trust parliaments. The same proportion of people had lost their trust in governments, legal systems, media and companies6.

Reformist mainstream

However, these ongoing or desired big changes are not reflected in the work at political arenas. The activity of parties, representatives, NGOs and even most movement activists is totally concentrated on achieving small social reforms. This is understandable in the case of those politicians who accept all the ongoing major social changes and who do not endorse people’s wishes for change. But the strange thing is that also the great majority of those politicians and activists who are not at all satisfied with the state of the world do the same: make enormous effort to bring about minuscule changes in legislation, state and municipal budgets, administration or individual decisions. This happens even though many of the politicians themselves perceive that most reforms are watered down and the overall situation is worsening.

On the other hand, even the discussion on major intentional social changes is pushed out of the scope of political rationality. Even the term that is historically used to signify these changes, ‘revolution’, is so much loaded with negative connotations that it is difficult to speak about political revolution in the Global North in neutral or positive terms without being ashamed. Revolutions are conceived as necessarily violent and counterproductive, and therefore dangerous. However, after Thomas Kuhn’s well-known book7 it has been quite normal to speak of revolutions in other fields: politicians and activist cannot make revolutions but surely scientists, philosophers, artists and software engineers.

We end up in a paradoxical situation: major intentional social changes are wished for but at the same time and often by the same people they are flatly opposed. This happens in the world that is changing rapidly anyway and the trend of the change seems to be very negative from the standpoint of humanistic-ecological values.

Our condition appears to be hopeless. Is there any way out? Why is there such a paradoxical attitude to change?

Petrified concepts

Of course this disjunction of desire and action is very useful for powers that be. But apart from functional explanations, one might look at the prevalent concepts of reform and major social change. It seems that they have been petrified sometimes during the last century. These notions enter into discussions as fixed starting points and do not allow any elaborations.

Reformism is associated with progress. Present order is perceived as at least reasonablely good and no major structural changes are needed. Problems are not related to the main structures or processes in society. Parliamentary process or formal democracy is the method of solving our problems for which prospering market economy provides the needed resources. Accumulation of small improvements will ultimately constitute a big change but we must wait at least a century or so for that to come true.

On the other hand, major social changes are either conceived as spontaneous or unintentional cataclysms like those caused by natural catastrophes and wars, or else they are wicked attempts made by some fanatics. These attempts are necessarily accompanied with undemocratic means and great violence because large majority of people don’t really want big changes " those desires referred above are mere thoughtless wishes. But even by these brutal means revolutions ultimately fail because common consent for the new rule is absent. The paradigmatic case of revolution is of course the popular interpretation of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and its aftermath.

However, on a closer look it is obvious that both of these mainstream conceptions of intentional social change are inadequate.

Failing reforms

The mainstream concept of reformism is based on a number of hidden assumptions that hardly hold true in today's world. For instance, its idea of progress is founded on the premise that the flow of reforms is somehow faster than the flow of new problems. On the earth experiencing rapid social, technological and ecological changes this is difficult to believe.

The economy is conceptualised as a continuous source of utility. In fact, it is also a continuous source of disutility because profits are generated by externalizing a large part of the production, marketing and distribution costs to the society and the environment8. Therefore, when you are using the economy as a resource base for reforms, you are " to use a Finnish idiom " like a magpie on a tarred roof: when he gets the beak off, the tail gets stuck and so on.

One of the pillars of mainstream thought is that the economy is a kind of machine: its utility maximizing entities are bound to similar laws as physical particles in the space " laws governed with almost the same differential equations as used in physics9. Therefore the market discourse used when speaking about economy is about a natural beast which must be harnessed but the harness must not be too tight to cause the beast to bolt.

However, even a temporal step out of this discourse, a short reflection on one's own experiences and casual reading of economic news, reveal that economy is a big, cris-crossing power structure. Because of their position on the top of a hierarchal company organization or the income and wealth pyramid, some men and a few women have enormous power over other people's fate. They can consume the energy and health of hundreds of thousands people just to satisfy the trivial needs of their own or their projects. All this they can do like tyrants without any democratic control.10

The political conception of economy deconstructs yet another central assumption in reformist thought: the idea that the legislative and executive powers of states are broadly speaking independent of the economy. They are assumed to be dependent only in the way as the master is dependent on his horse11. But when it appears that there is no horse pulling the plough but a group of people getting their commands from somewhere else or commanding many people including the master, the situation gets very complicated.

In fact there are masses of research literature which shows how even in “established democracies” the powerful economic circles influence and even infiltrate state legislatures and bureaucracies12. They make the crucial decisions to be often completely the opposite what the great majority of the population wants13. Furthermore, the main policy of the states is to get the economy to grow, i.e. get more powerful. On top of this, the states almost in unison promote "liberalisation" which often means facilitating corporations bigger than a state to operate and wield power within its boarders14. It is no wonder why people think that “my country is not governed by the will of the people”.

All this means that the probability of successful humanistic-ecological reforms accumulating and constituting a major positive change is very low. A much more probable outcome is that in spite of occasional successes the situation keeps getting worse.

Unknown revolutions

On the other hand, the idea that the only alternative to reformism is a violent, undemocratic and counterproductive revolution rests also on several questionable premisses. One of those is that all historical revolutions have been especially violent and that the violence was due to small fanatic minority imposing the revolution on the rest of the population.

This is, however, only one of the possible readings of the historical record. Another reading is that revolutions as people's uprisings and starting points for the process of building new social structures have often been rather nonviolent. Violence association with revolutions is caused most often by those forces within and outside the country that want to stop the revolution and from the fact that they have happened during a war.15 For example relatively little fighting was needed to overthrow the Batista regime in Cuba because of the widespread dissatisfaction and the massive uprising of the people16. Also in Russia to topple the tsarist and the following provisional regime and to start to organize the economy democratically, only modest violence was required. But the Bolsheviks needed massive violence to stop revolutionary people to hollow the basis of centralized power in the country17. The collapse of the Soviet Bloc was almost totally nonviolent: Both the grassroots movement that was the immediate cause for the collapse and the counter-movement from above which established the new centralized order did not use violence in the conventional sense. Indirectly the counter-movement's death toll is huge also in this case because it imposed economic austerity measures causing severe impoverishment of the great majority of the population18.

The most crucial hidden assumption in the dominant political thinking is that people and society really are what you see in the official institutions. Society is the state plus the official economy. People are citizens, voters, schoolchildren, students, patients, workers, employees, craftsmen, professionals, entrepreneurs, employers, owners, investors, debtors and consumers. Or if they cannot be characterized by a positive relation to these institutions, they are defined negatively: people are minors, disabled, retired, unemployed, poor, misfits, delinquents, criminals and foreigners. What they are or do additionally, is of marginal importance. From this perspective society is by and large a well-functioning whole which is possible to change only modestly.

Really existing alternatives

But underneath and parallel to the official structures and roles, there is another world of thought, activity and social relations.

This consumer may curse the market-chain because she must buy again poisonous tomatoes from Spain and bread full of additives. That well-payed employee may hate his bloodsucking employer and plans how he could use his inside knowledge to sabotage the company. This unemployed engineer may organize an exchange circle in her neighbourhood and feels that for once she is doing something important. That investor may read histories of revolutions and dreams about a new social upheaval. This retired teacher may be an active member of a social justice group and learns to appreciate the views of her young radical comrades.

However, most important is that the majority of these and those dutiful citizens, workers and consumers are also mothers and fathers. When their children are small, they produce an enormous amount of food, cleaning, care and other essential services unpaid at their home. Usually the only thing preventing them from breaking down under the workload is the help given by informal circles of friends, relatives, neighbours and peers.

The informal work by parents, unemployed, retired and other people as well as social relations supporting it, are so extensive that one can speak about an alternative economy existing in the middle of any modern society. It is not based on the logic of markets or capitalism, even less it is a planned economy. It resembles the gift economy recorded in many anthropological studies19. But because barter and informal, socially embedded market relations occur in it also, it is not pure gift economy. Maria Mies and some other German anthropologists have started to call it subsistence economy20.

In addition to subsistence economy and partly overlapping with it, there is another already existing alternative economy: that based on common wealth created by Nature and cultures. Concrete manifestations of material common wealth are, for instance, the air that we breathe, the sun that warms us, the winds that cool us, the ability of most women to give birth, wild animals and plants, rivers and most lakes, oceans, deserts and a large part of the forested areas, cities and villages, public libraries, schools, hospitals and cheap public transportation systems. Nonmaterial examples are most of the genetic information and scientific knowledge, open-source software like Linux, local knowledge, folk wisdom and common sense, folklore and a large part of popular and high culture.21

Accordingly, the informal sphere of the society is not at all of marginal importance: its proper functioning and continuing existence are often a matter of life and death. Therefore people are often ready to fight if this economy is threatened. These conflicts are widespread because from the official perspective informal sector contains only poorly utilized resources that must be brought into productive use. In the fight to defend the informal economy, alternative forms of political organizing and democratic decision making develop22.

Thus both in politics and in economy there is all the time going on a wide variety of such important activities, social interactions, group formations and other processes which are not integrated into the official institutions. The institutionalization process of the society is incomplete and open. In a way there exists ‘social surplus’ that makes society more flexible and explains many phenomena which cannot be accounted for if one looks only at the institutional structures.

The same applies on the individual level to subject formation. The personality of a woman or a man acting both in official and informal roles has many fractures. This inconsistency is increased by the fact that official institutions are full of internal contradictions and often the dominant ideology is incapable to contain them.23 For instance, the official doctrines of states and companies are full of noble principles, emptiness of which is obvious for many insiders. This “subjective surplus” is partly channelled to unofficial activities, partly it exists only as dreams and as potentiality for a future society. Thus even under the polished face of a most loyal and diligent worker and citizen there may be a surprise waiting.

This all means that when a major social change is happening, its motor is the social and subjective surplus which comes more and more from the background to the fore. The primary frontline between the old order and the new horizon is not the one between them and us. Instead it will divide almost everyone from inside. In this perspective the question of violence in major social changes takes a new light: You have no reason to kill a person if a half of him is already on your side and the other half may follow. There is no need to impose violently a revolution on others if most of these are already partly in the social change movement or on the threshold of entering it.

The collapse of the Soviet Bloc is a case of the phenomenon. At least decades before the big change the society and people were riddled with cleavages between the official and the unofficial. Anyone travelling in these countries usually came across on these fractures. Officially a person was a dutiful cleric in a state institution, but in practice he used his time to organize food and other necessities for his relatives or did voluntary work in a cultural heritage association. He was a master in double-thinking. The cleavages found its expression in political jokes circulating everywhere. People worked half-heartedly and in practice sabotage was widespread. Accordingly, the economy and political apparatus functioned poorly. When things started to change, one and the other found their oppositional side even among the party elite. Soon the hollowed-out society collapsed.

Rational praxis

One of the background assumptions of this paper is non-determinism: history is open and human action can change its course. Neither the present order is determined to persist nor an oppositional movement to win. But the odds of winning can increase a lot by our actions. When people see no chance for their humanistic, ecological and democratic values to come true in this order, they should try to change it. And surely a huge number of people are already doing it in hundreds of different ways. They protest, march, demonstrate, block and boycott. They build concrete alternatives materially, socially or spiritually and engage in prefigurative action which models a future society. They withdraw their allegiance to the system and hollow it from inside.

Sometimes a confrontational attitude will work but not always. Sometimes activities not visible for the rulers are rational choices. Sometimes even a perverted adoration of the rulers will yield results. For example the Sakalava of Madagascar are loyal mainly to the dead members of the dynasty. In Kongo people made their kings so sacred that they could not rule any more. Kings could move only inside a small building or they had to be castrated.24

When a major global social change stirred by millions of actions and non-actions really gets going, most people probably do not realize that it is happening. It may be that a political revolution has already started.

But most probably the global society is in a bifurcation state: it can as well move to a kind of fascist totalitarianism as change structurally to be able to heed humanistic and ecological values. To further the latter we need myriads of different kinds of actions " but actions imbued with a perspective of a major change. If you invest your whole energy to make the present order a little bit less evil, the lesser level you accept tomorrow will be monstrous. Or to paraphrase Wittgenstein: Wovon man nicht sprechen wagt, darüber muss man verzweifeln " Whereof one dare not speak, thereof one must be hopeless.


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150,000 people in 60 countries were interviewed. This represents a total global population of 1.25 billion. .

2For example in the winter 2004-2005 75% of Finns were of this opinion, Torvi and Kiljunen 2005

4Voice of the People Survey 2005, Gallup International, October 2005, rty%20VoP%202005.pdf

7Kuhn 1962

8The idea of externalized costs was first brought up by William Kapp in 1950: Kapp 1950

9See e.g. Mirowski 1988

10See e,g, Korten 1995, Chomsky 1999, Lummis 1996

11This assumption is made even by such a critical thinker as Jürgen Habermas, see e.g. Habermas 1998, p. 122-124

12Concerning the concrete situation in Germany see Jänicke 1990, in Finland Ruostetsaari 1992, in the EU Balanyá, et al. 2000

13See e.g. Chomsky 1999

14See e.g. McMurtry 1998, Chossudovsky 1997

15See e.g. Foran 2002, Bookchin 1996, Graeber 2004

16Paige 2002

17See e.g. Brinton 1975[1970], Voline 1990[1947], Goldman 1970

18See e.g. Chossudovsky 1997

19On gift economy see e.g. Mauss 1970, Temple 1988

20Bennholdt-Thomsen and Mies 1999, Bennholdt-Thomsen, et al. 2001. Alfredo L. de Romaña calls it "autonomous economy", Romaña 1989

21See Tammilehto 2003, Lummis 1996, McMurtry 1999, Berkes 1989, Bollier 2002

22See e.g. Solnit 2004, Abramsky 2001, Graeber 2004

23On fractured subject see e.g. Henriques, et al. 1984, Fairclough 1989, Foucault 1972

24Graeber 2004 p. 59-60

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