On “Permanent Revolution”

Karl Marx famously evoked the term “permanent revolution” in urging the disenfranchised working-class to rise up against their capital-owning oppressors. He was beseeching those suffering under the nascent system of industrial production to mount a sustained resistance against capitalist exploitation, and never settle for a compromise that made life slightly more tolerable but failed to alter the underlying power dynamic of their time.1

Things are different now– at least in much of the global north. The lines between ‘proletariat’ and ‘bourgeois’ are more ambiguous. Factory work has largely been replaced with service work and knowledge work. Many people now experience some degree of sovereignty and pleasure towards their jobs, even if they are not CEOs. Moreover, technological change has brought many comforts and securities to huge masses of people that were largely or entirely unattainable in the past.

Under these conditions, the notion of revolution may sound unpleasant and undesirable. The word might conjure up images of 18th century French revolutionaries beheading politicians, or Cuban revolutionaries ousting Batista through guerrilla warfare. Even poor Americans–living paycheck to paycheck, working multiple minimum wage jobs– are unlikely to desire that kind of revolution.

The fact is that revolution does not always need to be violent. But it does need to occur. Continually.

What is a revolution? The term simply describes a full rotation, the completion of a cycle. A day is one revolution of the Earth on its axis. A year is one revolution of the Earth around the sun. These patterns of motion produce difference and change, allowing life to flourish. When the sun rises in the morning, we are happy to see it. It brings us warmth and light and inspires the activity of day. But what if the sun failed to set? It would become a tyrannical, fiery mass and we would sweat, wither and burn under its incessant UV rays. So we are grateful when the sun sets in the evening, and happily welcome the moon and the stars and the cool, quiet, serenity of night.

Perpetual change is the natural condition of life. Stasis invariably morphs into suffering.

For me, permanent revolution is not just about political insurgency– it is an ideology that envisions the project of human betterment (through political, technological, and artistic means) as a never ending pursuit. To believe in permanent revolution is to believe that human happiness and human freedom can always be expanded, but never “achieved” in a final sense. There can be no stable utopia, because we cannot eradicate greed or malice from our species, nor predict all the consequences of our actions. But we can notice when our technological tools, social conceptions, or systems of power and governance produce pain and suffering, and then strive to dismantle or reform them as best as we can. And when the new forms become corrupted, co-opted or weaponized, we can tear them down again.2

This understanding of permanent revolution may feel sisyphean. But I truly believe things get better over time— albeit slowly, and with many steps in the wrong direction. Tremendous suffering and injustice persist in the world, and we face a number of deep and daunting challenges. But my generation is better educated, better connected, and better equipped (informationally, technologically, and artistically3) than any generation before us. We will generate the revolutions that our time requires, including:

  • A revolution in energy that replaces fossil fuels with decentralized, renewable, clean energy sources.
  • A revolution in education that dramatically increases access (abolishing the obscene student debt system) as well as accuracy and efficacy at every stage.
  • An economic revolution that moves us away from a globalized capitalist system that demands constant growth and assumes unlimited resources, towards more localized and conscientious modes of production and consumption.4
  • A political revolution that (1) dramatically expands democracy by curbing the influence of campaign donations and special interest lobbying, making voting easier, and expanding voter choices beyond those offered by the two-party system5 and (2) replaces the destructive neoliberal ideology that renders government a meek patron of corporate needs, with a return to the idea that the government’s objective should actually be improving the lives of the people.
  • A revolution of values (to use Dr. King’s term) involving a deep interrogation of the symbols, policies, and practices that construct and reproduce male violence, heterosexual hegemony, and white supremacy, as well as the cultivation of new channels for experiencing and expressing love, compassion, solidarity, and hope.

Revolution does not have to occur spontaneously, in one dramatic act, carried out by “revolutionaries.” To a large extent, it must be the cumulative result of millions of small, revolutionary actions that imagine, propagate, revise, and construct new systems that are more robust and compassionate than the old ones. These revolutionary actions can include various forms of reading, writing, learning, unlearning, demonstrating, disrupting, creating, and destroying. They can take place on college campuses and social media sites– in research labs, art studios, classrooms, city council halls, radio stations, and city streets.

Millions of people will help bring about the necessary revolutions of our time. They will not create a perfect world, but they will create a better one.

This understanding of permanent revolution is nicely illustrated by the bicycle, for two reasons. First, to move a bike forward you have to pedal: You have to forcefully topple the higher pedal and elevate the lower one, in a cyclical pattern of change that produces motion and moves you closer to your desired destination. And second, if you don’t stop pedaling– you just build on the momentum of the last revolutionary movement– the pedaling actually gets easier. The friction isn’t so noticeable. The inertia is on your side.


a drawing of a bicycle


  1. See: Karl Marx, “Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League”, London, March 1850
  2. As an example, take the invention of the automobile. By the late 1800s, large cities around the world had become wholly dependent on horses for the transportation of goods and people. As a result, cities were “drowning in horse manure” not to mention horse carcases. The automobile solved that problem. It also enabled new patterns of mobility, stimulating the spread of people and ideas. It created new identities, as it became an iconic symbol of freedom in American art and media (think Jack Kerouac’s On the Road or Grease). It changed how nations were settled and experienced. It was revolutionary. But now the combustion engine’s insatiable desire for oil has become untenable. The harm that fossil fuel production, transport, and combustion inflicts on people, animals, and ecosystems is too great to. It is time for another transportation revolution. And then another. And then another.
  3. When I say we are better equipped “artistically” I mean that we have a greater body of artistic work and a greater number of artistic movements to draw inspiration from. There are a tremendous number of songs, images, sculptures, and other forms of artistic expression– coming from the Beats, to the Impressionists, to current filmmakers– available to inform and inspire today’s minds and spirits.
  4. See: Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011); Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014).
  5. See: “Jimmy Carter: U.S. Is an ‘Oligarchy With Unlimited Political Bribery,’” Rolling Stone, July, 31, 2015, http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/videos/jimmy-carter-u-s-is-an-oligarchy-with-unlimited-political-bribery-20150731 (Accessed: June 30, 2016); “Ralph Nader: Sanders Should Stay in Democratic Race, Is Only Losing Due to Anti-Democratic System,” Democracy Now!, May, 10, 2016, http://www.democracynow.org/2016/5/10/ralph_nader_sanders_should_stay_in (Accessed June 30, 2016).

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