Theory vs Revolutionary Action

The distinction between revolutionary theory (what revolutionaries read, for example) and revolutionary programs of action (what they hoped to accomplish)

The notion of a core/derivative division in world revolutions is reinforced by the canon of revolutionary texts created at the core and consumed by the derivative. Works by Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Mao and a wide body of translated novels were the shared texts of twentieth century revolutions. This collection of revolutionary texts was also undergirded by knowledge of other classic texts and “great books” of western philosophy that were read by revolutionaries far and wide. For example, the multiple strands of the Iranian revolution–leftist students, secular nationalists, Marxist-Islamists, to name a few–meant that the works of a wide range of writers, from Lenin, to Plato, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Reed, and Shariati constituted the revolutionary canon. Likewise, Bolivian revolutionaries in the Bolivian Trotskyist Party were certainly familiar with works written by the namesake of their affiliation, yet they were also influenced by Rousseau’s concept that law and political rule should mirror the “general will” of the people. While scholars have generally understood that revolutionaries were reading a corpus of shared texts, less attention has been given to the dreams and motives that drew peoples in different times and places to these same texts, and which in turn influenced their multiple understandings. While many revolutionaries far and wide read Marx’s Capital or Plato’s Republic were they seeking the same answers to the same questions in them?

Using the lens and methods of political theory and literary criticism, this session thus asks: Is there a distinction to be made between revolutionary theory (i.e. the cannon consumed) and revolutionary programs (the utopian vision revolutionaries had)? In other words, while everyone was reading the same texts were they also dreaming the same dreams?