Year XLVII, 2005, Number 1, Page 6
1. Flows and Structures in History.
The historical process is a process of change: differentiated change with different rhythms, that consists, on the one hand, of complex and continuous transformations and, on the other, of periods of equilibrium in which there emerge, on the contrary, not so much the flows as the structures of the historical-social reality, in other words, the bonds between its elements that show a degree (more or less profound) of persistence and interrelationship. For this reason, any attempt to understand the nature of the historical process must be based on both a diachronic approach, which evaluates its evolution, and a synchronic approach, which investigates the static aspect of the structures. The fact clearly remains that the artificial separation of these two aspects is arbitrary, and that each remains indissolubly linked to the other. But it is equally clear that the study of history cannot ignore (notwithstanding the more or less arbitrary differentiation of these two aspects) approaches that highlight the persistence, sometimes protracted over a long time, of the same behaviours, of the same institutions, or of both. In this regard, we might cite the division of history into periods, the identification of homogeneous areas of civilization, Max Weber’s formulation of ideal types, and even the organization of the language used to describe historical transformations, which, in the final analysis, does nothing other than reflect the transition from one structure to the next structure. These approaches identify those elements that, within the flow, remain the same and constitute its subject. And this subject, by retaining its own identity in the course of the historical transformation, clarifies the meaning of the change.
If, then, it is true that the actors of the historical process are born, die and evolve, it is also true that each of these actors is linked to all the others and must coordinate, consciously or unconsciously, its conduct with the conduct of each of the others, giving rise, in each historical situation, to a state of equilibrium, or a social system. Clearly, this represents an element of inertia in the process. These states of equilibrium allow society to function: thanks to them, each individual or institution is able, roughly, to predict (on the basis of its more or less marked recurrence) the behaviour of others, and to mould its own conduct accordingly. They are the foundation of social peace, and thus of civilization itself, which flourishes and develops on the strength of the different and coordinated contributions that each subject is able to make thanks to the fact that society is based on the system’s assignation of clearly defined roles to its actors. If, in society, everything were to move with disordered rapidity, preventing any form of equilibrium from becoming established, the result would be total chaos. The order that allows the great values of civil coexistence room for expression is possible thanks to the presence of a relatively rigid delineation of the sphere of freedom within which each of us must, on pain of being relegated to the fringes of society, remain in order to allow the system to work correctly.
2. Civil Society and the Institutions.
It may be useful, for analytical purposes, to distinguish between two components of the historical process that, once again, are inextricably linked: civil society and the institutions. It is a distinction that has become increasingly important over the centuries as human societies have become differentiated and more structured and civilization has gradually been refined, but it can be traced right back to the earliest stages in the process of the emancipation of mankind.
Civil society is the ambit of transformation. Civil society is where innovation finds expression, economic activity grows or shrinks, science and technology advance, and art flourishes or declines. Clearly, the impetus for change is inevitably accompanied by the need for order and stability, without which it would be unable to express itself and would degenerate into anarchy. But being, on their own, unable to guarantee sufficiently coordinated action, the spontaneous forces of society cannot fulfil this need and generate the situations of equilibrium that are the indispensable condition for the advancement of civilization. What is required, for this, is the intervention of determined political will, that is, of power, which expresses itself through the institutions, which are thus the ambit of stability. The institutions, issuing laws and imposing the observance of these laws, even through recourse to force, constitute the specific element of equilibrium and inertia in the social system.
However, it is obvious that no institutional order remains, throughout the course of its existence, fixed. The institutions have the flexibility they need to adapt, up to a certain point, to the changeability of the social dialectic, without sacrificing the interdependence of behaviours that determine their basic physiognomy. But their existence rests on relations of command and obedience. Any adjustment they may make to historical circumstances cannot therefore be allowed to jeopardize the power situation of which they are the expression, or the structure of the civil society that underpins and reinforces this power situation. Hence, as long as an institutional system continues (just about) to work, all that history will experience (periods of war excepted) are phases of slow and ordered movement, which do not upset the major political and social equilibria.
The history of European integration is a significant example of this process of adaptation. The birth and development of the European institutions resulted from an attempt to adapt to a European framework the institutional order of a number of states whose economies and societies were becoming increasingly interdependent (without, however, sacrificing their national sovereignty and the balance of power linked to their retention of sovereignty). If, then, on the one hand, for the first three decades of their existence, the European institutions were in part the expression of an evolutionary phase of the process (in that they accompanied and favoured a period of great development of the European economy), on the other, and this is particularly clear in the current historical phase, they have been instruments of the attempt — largely unconscious — to postpone the “day of reckoning”, that is, the point at which the basic contradiction, resolvable only through the relinquishing of sovereignty to a European state, will suddenly become patently obvious.
It is to be noted that this whole picture is complicated by the two facets — internal and external — of the political institutions, which on the one hand address civil society, and on the other the political institutions of the other states. Externally, the political institutions do not have the specific function of maintaining social peace and ensuring the rule of law; rather, even though they are interested in the preservation of a degree of international order, they must necessarily subordinate this concern to the furthering of their own power interests, and those of their own civil society. Therefore, they are to be examined solely with regard to their internal facet.
3. The Detachment of Civil Society from the Institutions. Phases of Slow Movement and Phases of Rapid Movement. Historical Crises.
Civil society and political institutions are very closely related to each other. Political institutions are always, originally, the expression of civil society, and they reflect the behaviours that manifest themselves within it. Moreover, by allowing these behaviours to evolve in an orderly fashion, they bring out all their positive potentialities. Thus, they not only reflect, but also regulate the often confused and contradictory needs and aspirations that manifest themselves within civil society. In short, these two aspects of society condition each other.
Hence, in the evolutionary phases of history, the action of each of these two components of society strengthens the action of the other: the social system expresses all its creative force and society goes through phases of expansion. But this happens only in the evolutionary phases of the social process, because in the long run the rhythm of evolution of civil society does not match that of the evolution of the political institutions, given that civil society is the specific ambit of change (even though there has to be a stable framework for this change to come about) and the institutions are the specific ambit of stability (even though they have to evolve, never losing their identity, in order to adapt to the evolution of civil society). The institutions thus tend, over time, to lose touch with civil society; they tend to lose the capacity to govern its needs and aspirations, and, as a result, they tend to arrest its development, suffocating its progressive impetus, and causing it to degenerate into anarchy and into sterility. It is thus inevitable that the inflexibility of the institutions gives rise, over time, to ever-deepening divergences, and ultimately to irremediable contradictions between the degree of evolution reached by civil society and the capacity of the institutions and of the balance of power that they express to reflect and govern these contradictions. These are the phases in which the development of civil society is no longer disciplined and oriented, but slowed down, or arrested, by the incapacity of the institutions to adapt to it: these are civilization’s degenerative phases.
Hence, the phases of slow movement can be broken down into two sub-phases. The first follows the birth of a new institutional order and is characterized by a strong degree of compatibility between the functioning of civil society and the functioning of the political institutions. During this sub-phase, politics, science, the economy, culture and civilization generally go through periods of expansion. The second sub-phase (still part of the phase of slow movement) derives from the growing contradiction between the demands of civil society, within which there continue to emerge forces for change, even confused and disordered ones, and the progressive inflexibility of the political institutions, which are unable to respond to these demands.
But this still does not explain the nature of the great changes that are the key turning points in the historical process. The only way to understand this process is as a succession of states of equilibrium, in which the transition from one state to the next, following a period of expansion and, subsequently, a long period of standstill due to the inflexibility of the institutions, comes about through unexpected and dramatic historical crises, or through phases of rapid movement. These are the high points of history in which freedom, taking the place of determinism, bursts onto the scene.
If the institutions are the ambit of stability, then political action, understood in its specific sense, according to the doctrine of political realism, is the ambit in which determinism most properly manifests itself. However, this does not take away the fact that determinism and freedom of human behaviour are inextricably linked: or that each one finds its proper ambit in specific periods in the historical process. Determinism emerges in those long phases in which the laws of political action manifestthemselves and govern, albeit with the necessary flexibility, the behaviour of men; freedom, on the other hand, finds its voice in periods of acute crisis in which the laws of politics are momentarily suspended, so to speak, or temporarily lose their validity, making way for freedom and allowing the transition from one power equilibrium to the next.
This structure of the historical process means that, precisely because of the inevitably unexpected nature of the crises, the contradiction between the demands of civil society and the institutional order, until it reaches crisis point, remains virtual and in any case unconscious. Continuity of the institutions, with their inevitable adaptations, means continuity of the way in which the political alternatives open to the citizens are formulated and perceived, continuity of the nature of their expectations and motivations, and of the structure of their careers. The system tends to be self-perpetuating, which indicates that it does not, by itself, produce an alternative to itself.
4. The Revolution.
The historical process is thus a succession of different equilibria, which means that each system is replaced by a different system, adjusted to meet the needs of civil society, and thus that civil society has the inherent capacity to generate new institutional orders and to regenerate itself. This happens because social systems are not machines, or communities of bees or ants that have rigidly predetermined patterns of behaviour. They are made up of men, whose behaviour is certainly in part determined (by the need to make the ordered functioning of their social system possible), but who do not, for this reason, stop being reasoning beings; they are beings who live determinism through the filter of consciousness and retain a sphere of freedom: even though this consciousness is often a false consciousness and this freedom only virtual. This means, first of all, that if it continues to be true that the system does not by itself produce, in a progressive and conscious way, an alternative to itself, it does, however, leave space for the growth and development, internally, of dissatisfaction with and lack of faith in the existing institutions, these sentiments being manifested both among the political class and in public opinion. And it is precisely the existence of these gaps, this opening up of spaces of virtual freedom, that allows part of the political class, and part of public opinion, when the hiatus between civil society and the institutional order starts to widen, to hear and remember the revolutionary message — even though it limits itself to storing it away in a hidden corner of its consciousness, in readiness to turn it into a conscious project only when the crisis occurs. And it also means that, in these gaps in the system, there have to be able to emerge groups capable of becoming conscious and active bearers of the revolutionary message, capable, that is, of seeing the alternative before the crisis comes, and of preparing for its advent by making all aware of its coming.
In their purest form, these sudden transformations, which occur through crises, are revolutions, or transformations wrought by forces of an essentially popular nature existing within the system (even though, clearly, it takes political leaders to interpret and orient this popular momentum). When the popular element is absent, or stirred up surreptitiously, what one is faced with is a coup d’état, always born of a situation of profound political decay, in which the aim is not to institute a new order, but to try and prevent the collapse of the existing one, or to restore an old, now irretrievably discredited order.
When, on the other hand, the forces in the field are entirely, or partially, external to the system, the situation is one of war. Wars can have the effect of helping to create a new equilibrium within the state, or states, that emerged as losers from the conflict only if there exists within it, or within them, a popular movement that autonomously pushes in the same direction and whose emergence is favoured by the external forces; otherwise, they produce only a strengthening of the pre-existing equilibrium, or quite simply, chaos. It must be noted that the main function of wars is a different one. Indeed, the crises, and successions of equilibria that follow them are characteristic not only of the internal situations of states, but also of systems of states, in which the perception that governments, politicians, observers and ordinary citizens have of power relations reflects a superseded distribution of the effective resources that form the basis of power. This incorrect perception prevents the new virtual power system (now fully mature) from evolving into a situation of real power, thereby neutralizing the energies of ascending states and setting those that are on the wane before challenges to which they are unequal. Hence the systems of states are rendered unstable and incapable of promoting general development. Wars serve to overcome this contradiction. We might cite the example of the transition from the European to the world equilibrium that was sanctioned by the Second World War, which put an end to the state of uncertainty created in the wake of World War I.
Returning, in particular, to the institutional order of the European societies, it must be recalled that whereas, as a regime, it has undergone numerous transformations, starting with the French Revolution, as a community, it has remained substantially stable, that is to say, the extent of civil coexistence (leaving aside the processes of German and Italian unification) has remained practically unchanged throughout the various regime changes. It is precisely this community aspect, which has a much more radical bearing on civil coexistence than the structure of the institutions (through the regime) does, together with the sovereignty of the nation-state, that the objective of Europe’s political unification, that is of the foundation of a European federal state, throws into question. It thus brings within sight a profound revolutionary transformation.
5. The Mole.
To try to understand, in more depth, the meaning of historical transformations, it is worth returning briefly to the question of the systemic nature of the equilibria. In particular, it is worth underlining the fact that the equilibria comprise roles, or functions, differently exercised, assigned to the institutions, groups and individuals that make up the system. Thus, systems understood in their entirety, on the one hand, and individual roles on the other, are two sides of the same coin. The system defines and assigns the roles and coordinates their functions. The roles, interacting with one another, support the system, serve it a purpose, and help to render it permanent.
It therefore needs to be underlined that it is the relative rigidity of the equilibria that determines the suddenness of their transformations. Clearly, this does not mean that transformations are not always preceded by preparatory phases, sometimes complex ones. It means that in these phases, the movement of civil society remains in part disordered, in part virtual, and in part unconscious; society, in fact, does not evolve in the phases of movement: or rather, it evolves only below the surface. This is precisely why Hegel and Marx, in reference to these phases of historical transformation, use the mysterious and impersonal image of the mole, which, unseen, digs tunnels under the halls of power, destroying their foundations and eventually causing the whole edifice suddenly to collapse in on itself. It goes without saying that signs of the approaching transformation accumulate as time goes by. They take the form of splits and contradictions, they undermine the efficiency of the social system, they reduce the close compatibility of the roles of which it is composed, and they reduce the moral engagement of its protagonists. But they are nothing more than signs and presentiments. They indicate the presence of a pre-revolutionary situation, certainly a necessary condition for the revolution proper, but not a sufficient condition: in the absence of the detonator, they can often fizzle out into nothing. The political institutions, rigid as they are, nevertheless have a certain capacity to adapt. They can adjust to a new situation just enough to prevent the revolutionary currents in civil society from making their presence felt, but not enough to alter the power situation on which they themselves rest. In this way, revolutionary opportunities can be missed, and the decline of civil society can continue unchecked for decades, which is what happened in Ancient Greece and in Italy in the Modern Age.
It may be useful also in this regard to cite the example of the process of European unification, which, on more than one occasion, has found itself on the brink of an out-and-out revolutionary transformation: we may think of the struggle for the European Defence Community, or the creation of the single European currency, or the profound foreign policy and monetary crisis in which Europe finds itself now, in the wake of the war in Iraq, and the enlargement of the membership of the European Union. But the process has failed to find within itself the energy needed to progress from a general aspiration for change to the formulation of a clear plan on the basis of which to begin a true political struggle.
6. The Conditions for Revolution.
In order for the revolutionary event to occur, three conditions have to be present. The first, as mentioned, is the manifestation of a crisis that is more than just an accumulation of contradictions in relation to the growing divergences between the demands of civil society and the responses to these demands that the political institutions are able to come up with: it has to be an acute and dramatic crisis in which the security of the citizens is at stake and the very foundations of their wellbeing jeopardized. This crisis can take the form of real disorder, or the real risk that such disorder will manifest itself: but it must, in any case, be concrete and imminent. To throw into question the existing order is to throw into question the very foundations of one’s own existence. It is thus inconceivable that a significant section of public opinion will put its destiny on the line unless circumstances lead it to believe that its destiny has already been put on the line, by the force of events.
The second condition is a mobilization of the protagonist of the revolution, that is the people, effective holders of sovereignty and without whom the revolution, an event of enormous historical significance, could not take place; in addition, some of its leaders must have the capacity to direct popular currents, inevitably vague and instinctual, and to transform them into political choices, in other words, into a struggle that, albeit at the cost of a tortuous journey, full of U-turns and mistakes, will lead to the creation of a new order.
As we have already said, human societies, being made up of individuals endowed with reason and will, are nevertheless characterized by a measure of freedom, even though this is buried in a sort of underground space in their consciousness and comes to light only in critical historical moments.
This means that individuals nevertheless perceive, albeit partly unconsciously, the inadequacy of the institutions, when this inadequacy manifests itself, even though this perception is not expressed through active and conscious opposition. The messages that arrive from outside the system thus settle in the collective subconscious, ready to evolve into principles of action when the conditions are ripe. This also applies to those who occupy the political institutions, or have roles connected with politics, whose capacity to perceive the provisional nature of the logic of the system is not totally taken away by their need to adapt to that logic, and makes some ready to lead the process of its transformation.
Both the section of the people that becomes an actor in the revolution, and the leaders who guide it, can detach themselves from the existing order in relation to which they retain a degree of autonomy. Were they a mechanical and total part of it, they would not be able to set themselves up on opposition to it. But this does not alter the fact that, if all that we have said is true, their autonomy, prior to the explosion of the revolutionary event, manifests itself not as a definite attitude, but in the form of presentiment and uneasy awareness. In truth, the citizens, until events degenerate, will continue to go about their business, and politicians to play their part, both helping to keep the scaffolding of the political-social system standing. They continue to be committed to their careers and to make and pursue their political choices. To break away from all this, they need something else: in particular, in addition to a precipitation of the situation, they need an initiative that originates from the outside.
7. Revolutionary Groups.
What we have to do, therefore, is identify the subjects who can prepare for the revolution, ahead of the explosive turn of events that will trigger it, and who can pave the way for the forces that will follow. They have to be free subjects, who can place themselves outside the equilibrium and who thus have no role in the system and serve it no purpose. In short, we have to establish whether the web of roles that make up the system offers the degree of flexibility that there has to be if it is to be sown with the seed of active change, the grain of mustard seed mentioned in the Gospels. In truth, this degree of freedom does exist. It can, as we have indicated a number of times, be glimpsed in the contradictions that are rife in society in the periods that precede revolutions, and it is personified in revolutionaries, that is, in those small groups that are present prior to all revolutions, that reflect and act before — often a long time before — explosive turns of events occur, and that are motivated not by the emergence of these events, but by the prospect of their coming — not by a need for power or by the power logic, but only by the freedom and clear-sightedness of historical wisdom.
The revolutionary, then, cannot and must not have a role in the system. Staying within the system means accepting its logic, not questioning its basis, carrying out more or less correctly the tasks linked to one’s role, and seeking the consensus of those who have an elevated position in politics or society, in short, telling them what they want to hear. As we have already said, when there is a high degree of compatibility between the institutions and civil society, the logic of the system is the logic of the advancing of civilization, which as a rule can come about only within the institutional order and by respecting its various roles and their hierarchy. But when these enter into conflict with one another, when the institutional order suffocates civil society and prevents it from advancing, when power becomes divorced from values because it has exhausted its function, to remain within the system and to accept its rules means to sacrifice one’s freedom to one’s career, renouncing one’s prerogative to speak the truth. This is precisely why the phases that precede revolutions are phases characterized by the corruption of politics and of all activities that depend on or are linked to politics.
8. The Basis of the Revolutionary Vocation.
But if those who remain inside the system adapt to its rules and become increasingly corrupt as power becomes increasingly unable to fulfil its function, and if those who are outside the system have neither power, money, nor the possibility to mobilize public opinion, then how do revolutions — the great transformations of the political-social system — come about?
They can happen, and they do happen in history, because the fabric of the social system nevertheless presents tears — openings for freedom. This allows some to place themselves outside the system, to consider it and to contest it in its entirety, thereby paving the way for the revolution. But it must be made clear that until the acute crisis takes place, these openings are very restricted, and also that autonomy comes at a high price, given that the system is geared to suffocate any attempt to break away from it. This is a situation that, in many cases, is not the result of anyone’s deliberate will, but is, for the most part, an objective reality. The existing order does not offer the revolutionary a role, because all its roles are geared to the perpetuation of the system. It thus follows that anyone wanting to question the system is destined to be an outcast, perceived by those inside it as a rather bizarre character who might deserve respect, but who counts for nothing because he never represents a realistic, short-term alternative to the current power (and political behaviour is conditioned only by the short term). Therefore, until the system is rocked by an acute crisis, revolutionary groups are destined to be characterized substantially by their small size, by their low profile, and by the poor means at their disposal.
The vocation of the revolutionary is, in truth, based on a factor that escapes the influence of the political-social order: the intellectual and moral freedom of the individual, which the gratifications offered by the system, like the punishments it is able to meter out, can usually silence, but not suffocate completely. Without doubt, active membership of a revolutionary group, especially over many years, is psychologically, and sometimes materially, very difficult. Those who, despite having for a long time (especially in their youth) pursued a revolutionary design, are unable, in the long term, to put up with being politically isolated and outcast, will either leave the revolutionary group in order to devote themselves to a career at national level, or will try to get the group itself to come in from the cold, urging it to abandon its opposition to the institutional order and to adopt the line of compromise that the system itself has adopted in order to adjust, without jeopardizing its own foundations, to the evolution of civil society. In both these cases, the system re-absorbs the revolutionary currents that manifested themselves outside of it, or part of these currents, and confers on those who promoted them a minor role and a measure of visibility: but the price these ex-revolutionaries pay for these rewards is the loss of their identity.
The fact remains that the revolutionary cannot set himself apart from the world, nor conduct his action solely with a view to the long term. This is particularly true given that, in the ambit of a revolutionary situation, it is impossible to predict exactly when the acute crisis will come: it could well be imminent, and this is something that those preparing for it must bear in mind. The revolutionary group, therefore, must be present within the political framework and seek to increase its interlocutors, without ever forgetting its radical diversity from political parties and all other political alliances, which is based on the fact that its action is not an attempt to change the balance of power in the existing framework, but to prepare the alternative to the existing framework, instilling in the minds of politicians and citizens, even only as a presentiment and not as a conscious intention, the idea of the new regime or the new community that is taking shape in the belly of history.
* This is the preliminary draft of an essay that the author was unable to complete. It is published here respecting his general outline. A few changes have been made to the final part which, in places, was still in note form.