Revolution From the khōra: Power From the Outside

Khora
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(Paul Harrison)

Throughout history there is a reoccurring pattern when it comes to revolution. If you observe the specific contexts of the revolutions that have taken place in many countries: Britain, France, Haiti, Russia, and China. Did they all happen because of an external influence? And, to what extent is this a component part of the revolution? Of the very idea of revolution? This is the line of questioning this essay will explore. Discussing the idea that successful revolution is dependent on a power that comes from outside the location of its eventual happening. This idea will be shown to be present or situated in these exemplary instances of undeniable revolutions: 1) The French revolution, 2) the Russian revolution, 3) The Chinese cultural revolution.

Next to these historical examples one is aware of one’s reasons behind writing with this perspective or with this postulation on the causal movements of revolution. The main reason for adopting such a stance is the importance of a famous fact in what many people believe to be the first work of political philosophy. Although there are other contenders for the title of first political treatise Plato’s Republic is often cited as the first. It consists of a conversation that encompasses what the ideal state might look like and the importance of justice to such an ideal, yet the fact that is more important for this discussion is the location, the specific place that this dialogue conspired. It happened outside of the city a place called the χώρα [Khōra] a notion that was important to Plato because he considered it to be a location where the forms used to reside.[ Plato. Timaeus (48e4)] Jacques Derrida helps us remember it in more recent thought of its importance. It certainly is political but what does it explicitly have to do with revolution?

In Derrida’s short essay named after this Greek location he starts by describing the myth which emanates from Plato’s orientation; Derrida describes the Khōra, ‘it oscillates between the two types of oscillation: the double exclusive (neither/nor) and the participation (both this and that).’[ Jacques Derrida, ‘Khōra’ in On the Name, Edited by Dutoit, T. Stanford University Press, Stanford California. 91 ] Such an oscillation or frequency fits the force one observes as the causal logic of revolution. The force transforms into a common noun “revolution” which is the culmination of a fluctuation in a form of logic.

The change found between exclusivity and participation is why one interprets the Khōra as a causal force because it implies a feeling of uncertain action like that of invasion, or an influx in immigration, and a conflict. This uncertainty is present in the ambiguity of the noun ‘revolution’ and what exactly it means. Furthermore, this doubt as to what is done in the name of revolution is resolved or completed in its success. An alternative to this expression is that within the site of potential revolution there is then a need of a referent but such a thing Derrida helps show is deeply abstract and one argues that this particular abstraction is a necessity.

‘Deprived of a real referent, that which in fact resembles a proper name finds itself also called an X which has as its property (as its physis and as its dynamis, Plato’s text will say) that it has nothing as its own and that it remains unformed, formless(amorphon). This very singular impropriety, which precisely is nothing, is just what Khōra must, if you like, keep; it is just what must be kept for it, what we must keep
for it.’[ Ibid. 97]

Yet, reading Derrida could suggest an opposite direction that we have to maintain the outside as formless and this would contradict my argument. This quote could be read from the perspective of a citizenry seen as keeping revolution indeterminate and external, but one would maintain that if this lack remains it is suggestive of an alternative cause: that the lack was not transformed into a name, an event (revolution).
So, let us test this idea and look to history beginning in France and some sources that hint at this movement away from the resemblance of a name, an X, to an actual name and suggest an accurate interpretation of this process named revolution. Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville discussed the 1789 revolution that changed the entire reality of Europe.[ Alexis De Tocqueville. The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution, edited by Jon Elster, translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. ] Tocqueville’s discussions of the changes that transformed the ancien regime (the old order) including: how the French revolution was a political revolution but with the distinctly religious character, territorial disputes giving way to principles, and the destruction of feudal and aristocratic institutions.

Again, the way Tocqueville writes supports the opposite notion of revolution the one that says it was a unique phenomena that originated in one country and then spread elsewhere. However, one does not agree with this because it does not reflect deeply enough on the religious aspect of this revolution. Religion for the French revolution was the Khōra; a power that was on the outside, in what sense can one claim this? The evidence for this perspective is that the then king Louis XIV who under the influence of Cardinal Mazarin embodied absolute rule. This means that kings where to believed to have a devine right implying that they were backed by the authority of God a power that was to also be responsible for the revolutionary thoughts of Karl Marx.[ Karl Marx, ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ [1845] in: Early Writings, London: Penguin 1975. ] Yet, the royalty of France of this time also contributes even more to our discussion. The way king Louis XIV exercised his absolutism demonstrates power’s necessary movement from the outside to the inside. This is explicitly made obvious by the fact that this king prioritised military expansion at the expense of higher taxes on citizens – unanimously cited as the cause of the revolution.

Reading this we see power exercised expansively into space outside the country in military acts and expansion. This inevitably results in the country’s citizens adopting a line of thinking an equation that Sieyes articulated, ‘subtract the privileged order and the nation would not be something less, but something more.’[ Abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, ‘Qu’est-ce que le tiers-état? / What is the Third Estate?’ in Essay on Privileges, (January 1789). 96] Of course this power often manifests in incredibly violent ways and the French revolution is infamous for the ‘reign of terror’ and the mass executions by guillotine. Here we should take a moment to consider the difficulties we face when viewing the power that fuels revolutions because it seems to contain key signs or symptoms: abuse of military might and paranoia towards the outside coupled with the ambiguity of deciphering the difference between criminals and those who place faith in laws. Maximilien Robespierre and the Jacobin’s behaved in such a way that enacted both symptoms but although their revolution was a success this did not save them from their fate. They fell victim to the very violence they wielded against their enemies; perceived both internally and externally power resulted in a short lived governance.

‘Wisdom, as much as power, presided over the creation of the universe…
If the revolutionary government is not seconded by the energy, enlightenment,
patriotism, and benevolence of all the people’s representatives, how can it have
the strength to respond proportionately to the efforts of Europe who are
attacking it, and to all the enemies of liberty pressing in on it from all sides?’[ Maximilien Robespierre. “On the Principles of Revolutionary Government.” In Robespierre, Virtue and Terror, edited and by Jean Ducange, translated by John Howe, introduction by Slavoj Zizek. London: Verso, 2007.]

In the case of Russia Vladimir Lenin offers more evidence for one’s scepticism toward the idea that the power bringing about radical change is generated internally by alluding to sham socialists and their petit-bourgeois utopia.[ Vladimir Lenin. State and Revolution, introduction by Todd Chretien. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014. 61.] How the ideology of the state being above classes betrays the working class. So, in Lenin’s discussion of the Russian revolution we can observe that he deemed the French revolutions of 1848 and 1871 to be a betrayal, the proletariat sell their birthright for a mess of porridge, and how the destruction of the state is a prerequisite for the formation of Marx’s the ‘workers dictatorship’ a main step towards human emancipation.[ Ibid, 63. ] We also learn of the struggles of the two quintessential rebel rouser’s so influential for Lenin and the Russian revolution; Marx and Engels came out and back into hiding, adding their firebrand journalism to revolutions in Germany and Europe (1848), yet these revolutions all failed because the fight for power came from within the same country and were all easily defeated. Lenin’s thoughts on Marx clarify the Khōra.

Marx never expected the communist revolution to take place in Russia. The manifesto he wrote with Friedrich Engels foresaw revolution taking place in more economically developed countries. The noun ‘Communist’ was the abstract necessity that Derrida described as a name and simultaneously an X because to be a communist one has to desire communities sharing the commons (both this and that, and neither nor. Remembering Derrida’s distinction). In the Russian revolution Lenin attempted to use Marx’s dictatorship of the proletariat in other words ‘a vanguard party’ to do away with the rule of the Tsar and bring about socialism.[ Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels. “Manifesto of the Communist Party.” In The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert C. Tucker, 469-500. London: Norton & Company, 1978. 479-500.] The 1917 October Revolution in Saint Petersburg was led by Lenin and the Bolsheviks and here we have movements associated with conflict (WW1, and exile in Lenin’s case) a desire for change that when forced to travel via way of exclusion seeks an inclusive tradition.

Mao Tse-Tsung wrote extensively about how he perceived a revolutionary tradition dating back to the people of the han dynasty. Mao claims, ‘the Chinese never submit to tyrannical rule but invariably use revolutionary means to overthrow or change it.’[ Mao Tse-Tsung, ‘The Chinese Revolution and The Chinese Communist Party’ in Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tsung, Volume I,[https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-2/mswv2_23.html] ] Whilst writing about his nation Mao is rightly brimming with pride and the sentences carry this feeling unabashedly and this may hide the simultaneous exaggeration that also resides within any writing of a political leader. In this case the aim of Mao was to clearly describe how it was the Chinese people’s great struggle that was the sole creator of what was to become the Peoples Republic of China and of course this is true to some extent but there is more than a little evidence that Mao and his revolutionaries had help from a power outside China.

Japan and its invading armies constitute this external force. The second ‘Sino-Japanese war’ (1937-1945) resulted in Japan committing some of the worst war crimes on record – an estimated two to three hundred thousand people where massacred and raped as Japanese forces captured the then Chinese capital of Nanjing. Here we have a dark example of this external power influencing a revolution because there is evidence that strongly suggests chairman Mao the leader of the Communist party of China saw this event as the reason for his successful revolution. Journalist Richard McGregor cites this confession. This quote demonstrates that Mao the instigator and figurehead of the cultural revolution consciously referenced the force that allowed him and his comrades to move from guerilla warfare and toward defeating the nationalists and to attain control over the country.

‘[A] meeting with a Japanese Socialist party leader, Mao perversely thanked Japan for invading China, because the turmoil created by the Imperial Army had enabled the CCP to come to power. “We would still be in the mountains and not be able to watch Peking Opera in Beijing,” he said. “It was exactly because the Imperial Japanese Army took up more than half of China that there was no way out for the Chinese people. So we woke up and started armed struggle, established many anti-Japanese bases, and created conditions for the War of Liberation. The Japanese monopolistic capitalists and warlords did a ‘good thing’ to us. If a ‘thank you’ is needed, I would actually like to thank the Japanese warlords.”[ Richard McGregor, The Long Read: Could Trump’s Blundering Lead to War Between China and Japan? The Guardian Online, Thu 17 Aug 2017 06.00 BST, [https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/aug/17/could-trumps-blundering-lead-to-war-between-china-and-japan] ]

Adding to this example we can acknowledge that the use of ‘comfort women’ by the Japanese highlights the importance of feminist narratives in the future of revolution. The oppression of women and the fight for gender equality is one of the more important revolutionary battles happening today; perhaps the power that will make this gender revolution a success is a change in the role of the female as a mother, giving birth may change due to external influence of technology.[ Shulamith Firestone. The Dialectic of Sex: The case for feminist revolution, Bantam Books, USA, 1970] Such changes will first manifest in the societal and cultural entities of the biggest countries.

China is currently the worlds biggest economy and global power this is because like America it is expanding its military but after its revolution the state that emerged became more self aware of its own character and culture.[ China is well known for the control of its population and its inward looking nature but also due to its philosophy Confucianism it places a much greater emphasis on the importance of the family as a structure. ] So, rather than expanding imperially via military strength China exercised control over its population building control within its own lands. This is why McGregor uses the metaphor of Thucydides Trap because he sees that the rising power of China as too much of a threat to America for there not to be war between these two great nations.[ Ibid, McGregor. ] However, the outbreak of the Peloponnesian war when Sparta attacked Athens is another example because this metaphor is politically applicable to many instances of conflict throughout history and its symptom is an arms/weapons race. Such a race, does it not demonstrate power coming from the outside? Yes, it is one example but staying with China the country offers more evidence it has in the last decade hosted some of the biggest workers unions in the world (unsurprising because one fifth of humanity is Chinese). Comprising of millions of members and are often farmers or rural workers – they are so big and well organised that the government is forced to communicate.

This takes us back to that truly revolutionary conversation that took place outside the city. A site to situate the power from the outside that generates the impetus for a change that even an ancient aristocrat like Plato saw as necessarily tied to the use of justice. But, in terms of revolution the use of justice is a power that first manifests in a place between legality and criminality, a place, a topos that we understand as the χώρα [Khōra]?

‘When you want a deposit to be kept safely.
You mean when money is not wanted, but allowed to lie?
Precisely. That is to say, justice is useful when money is useless?
That is the inference. And when you want to keep a pruning-hook safe, then justice is useful to the individual and to the state; but when you want to use it, then the art of the vine-dresser?’[ Plato, The Republic, Book II. ]

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Bibliography

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De Tocqueville, Alexis. (2011), The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution, edited by Jon Elster, translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Derrida, J. (1993), ‘Khōra’ in ‘On the Name, Edited by Dutoit, T. Stanford University Press, Stanford California.
Shulamith Firestone. (1970), The Dialectic of Sex: The case for feminist revolution, Bantam Books, USA.
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. (1978), “Manifesto of the Communist Party.” In: The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert C. Tucker, 469-500. London: Norton & Company.
McGregor, R. The Long Read: Could Trump’s Blundering Lead to War Between China and Japan? The Guardian Online, Thu 17 Aug 2017 06.00 BST, [https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/aug/17/could-trumps-blundering-lead-to-war-between-china-and-japan]
Plato. The Republic
_____ Timaeus,
Robespierre, Maximilien. (2007), “On the Principles of Revolutionary Government.” In Robespierre, Virtue and Terror, edited and by Jean Ducange, translated by John Howe, introduction by Slavoj Zizek. London: Verso.
Sieyès, Emmanuel Joseph. (2003), “What is the Third Estate?” In: Political Writings, edited and translated by Michael Sonenscher, 92-162. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

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