Ten Theses on Revolutions

by Mohammed A. Bamyeh

On Occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Arab uprisings of 2011


All revolutions are surprising. Before they break out, the learned perspective asks: where are the resources a revolution would need? Who is preparing for it? Who is there to lead it? Which great personality, which political party, which organized assembly? Who would give it a sense of direction? How could it possibly make a dent in a long-enduring, formidable authority?

All prior doubts about the likelihood of revolt are based on realistic assessments. In that sense they are not invalid. Realism says: if I cannot see the plan of the revolution, I cannot see its possibility. And precisely because such doubts are valid, a revolution that breaks out in spite of them will always be surprising. It explodes against expectations, against learned assumptions. As it torments what before it had appeared as solid, immovable authority, a revolution also contests established knowledge.

Even where local intellectuals have been expressing longing for it for years, and even where ordinary people have likewise long been fed up with their conditions, a revolution will still take by surprise. Because a longing is not an act, and a general condition of unhappiness does not predict any specific action.

And precisely because of this inherent element of surprise, the revolution circumvents the regime’s preparation for it. If revolutions could be predicted, they would never happen: the science that does this work of prediction would immediately become the science of government. The fact that regimes are always on the lookout for opposition does not mean that they know in what way they will meet their end.

Revolutions often happen when they possess no resources to guarantee success. Committed revolutionaries may spend years planning for a revolution, using various theories and models to guide them. Sometimes the revolution succeeds not because of their plan, but in spite of it. And just like regimes, the revolutionary explosion often catches the committed revolutionary by surprise: the teeming masses rose up earlier or later than expected, they moved not by the book and not according to plan, but as a detonation in the normal flow of time.

Ten years ago, we again witnessed revolution’s capacity for surprise. In 2011, there was no plan for revolution, anywhere, when a whole world region went up in flames after a poor street vendor in a marginal town in Tunisia self-immolated. Nor was there a plan for the great Palestinian intifada of 1987, when a street collision resulted in the death of four Palestinian workers. While both spectacular revolts that followed could be explained by years of insufferable indignities preceding them, there was no specific reason that a specific indignity on a specific day would unsettle the mighty repressive norm that, by then, had seemed everlasting.

In fact, the surprising explosions seemed to respond to nothing other than the continuing hopelessness of the realistic attitude. The intifada broke out as a disruption of a then settling regional order, in which the Palestinians’ cause seemed to have been abandoned by their friends. Like the 2011 uprisings, the 1987 intifada erupted when there was no hope, no resources at hand to encourage hope, and at a point when rational, realistic minds posited hopelessness as the solid structure of the world.

An analysis of revolution therefore cannot be a predictive science. It must be a science of surprise. Predicting revolutions is something done only by those who do not understand them, do not listen to the profound speech of surprise. A surprise means that the knowledge needed to understand it did not exist prior. This knowledge is always fresh: it comes to life with every revolution. It is also for this reason that every revolution gives birth to its own intellectuals, especially where the existing intellectuals refuse to acknowledge its profound originality, and stick to their old system of thought that had predicted either the absence of revolution, or one of a very different character than what came to be. Thus every revolution brings its own knowledge with it; it does not follow an established science.

A surprise is an invitation to new knowledge.

Education and culture

All revolutions are educational experiences. That is substantially the case for their participants, but also for anyone who closely observes how they begin their march, and does not get entirely lost questioning where they lead. Sometimes they lead to what may look like a dead end. Other times it may seem that they end in a return to the previously established order. What comes out in the immediate aftermath of every revolution is not necessarily a new or better system. Before anything else, what comes out is an educational experience, even when a revolution appears to have failed.

This education is rarely uniform. We know that not all students learn the same lesson just because they happen to be in the same class. Some will learn more about their own capacities, begin to trust more in their own actions and initiatives. Others will learn the opposite lesson: to fear too much freedom, to yearn for a guiding authority, to prefer enlightened despotism. Many will learn the virtues of gradual enlightenment, some will want a more radical revolution, others will begin to consider the virtues of fascism. All those are lessons learned in the same class, taught by the same teacher, who has too many students to pay individual attention to, millions of souls pouring suddenly into a classroom called “revolution,” without preparation, without prerequisites, armed only with what all revolutions need most at their dawn: strong sentiments, resolute dedication, boundless energy.

These features, because they appear to mobilize millions, for a while also appear “good enough” as an educational manual. The future of this education, wherever it leads, begins with the emotions. What we call “education” flowing out of a revolutionary moment is an education that begins from the senses, is felt in the body as energy, in the mind as epiphany, in the soul as “the people”—an abstraction that for a moment becomes concrete, because it has become the person.

Over time, this sentimental education lays down the basis, at least in some souls, for the rational education into which all revolutions eventually metamorphose: long-term cultural processes. Revolutions are therefore not simply events in time. The last thing they change is the political system, the first thing they change is the culture.

Revolutions sometimes happen because they misunderstand the real power of the political system, or overestimate peoplehood. Revolutions are therefore not based on a correct understanding of the situation, or a proper analysis of the balance of power. Quite the opposite: they erupt out of complete lack of interest in this kind of “correct”—hence immobilizing—understanding of the situation.

But once they have “understood” the situation—either because their success appears to some participants to not have delivered a promised utopia, or because of the beating they have received from the counter-revolution, or because the revolution has been “stolen,” revolutions begin to produce an interest in new understanding. In other words, they produce a new culture, most visible among those not yet too contaminated with old knowledge. This culture emerges among the youth, in civil society, in new clubs above and underground, in new exchanges of ideas, in asking questions that yesterday were not even known to be questions, in reinterpreting a heritage, in a general interest in learning about the deeper meanings of what one has just done.

Whatever their immediate outcome, all revolutions give birth to a culture that lives on not necessarily everywhere in society, but in those segments that want to outfit the revolutionary experience with ideas, to give a grand event-in-time the long-term intellectual dignity suited to it. Rare are the revolutions that do not result in books written about them; poems composed in their honor; art that provides them with continuing presence; commemoration that remind of their best hopes; interpretations that establish them as inescapable heritage. Add to that the less visible, but more pervasive social traces (ordinary dialogues, new friendships, ongoing thoughts), that revolutions leave behind in their aftermath.

It may be decades before this new culture gives rise to a new revolution, or to a gradual transformation. But unlike political change, cultural transformation, even if carried out in secret or in dispersed geographies, is the only guaranteed outcome in the aftermath of a revolution. One can only postulate that the larger the size of the revolution, the larger the scope of that new culture, both intellectually and demographically.

While it may begin with the sentiments, a revolution proceeds as a general invitation to creativity, then lives on as emergent culture--thought, questions, arguments. As it gains expressive maturity and a self-bestowed right to presence, this culture, diverse as it may be, marks the onset of the next round of social transformation.

Moment and spirit

While every revolution eventually settles into a quieter era, a new epoch of long-term cultural process, all revolutions begin as moments that rupture given time. Understanding the profundity of that moment requires not confusing it with its immediate aftermath. The psychology of the moment is one of elevated spirit, extraordinary time, unusual solidarity, will to sacrifice, interruption of norms, license for originality that may appear unlimited. The aftermath of that moment is typically one of Realpolitik, rational calculations, instrumental thought, power struggles, more ordinary politics. And precisely in that re-emergence of quotidian time there will be much pressure to forget the revolution, long before the counter-revolution has performed any of its tricks.

The revolutionaries themselves will then be encouraged to become “sober,” to forget what they have just done, to focus on results, in other words, to accept that all they could do is reproduce the familiar order with newer, more acceptable faces and a few procedural fixes. Everyone is then encouraged to forget the revolution, to turn attention to what should come next, before they could reflect on how they had managed to unleash a revolution to begin with.

But especially after such a grand event as a revolution, one can learn nothing new out of the event by simply returning to an old, familiar way of thinking about reality. The revolution was not just a surprising event, but an addition to the known facts of existence. And what was most certainly new here was the capacity to revolt, not what came next. That capacity was what the revolutionary moment had demonstrated. The move away from exploring the source and promise of such novelty, and back into the more ordinary, more familiar psychology of “realism,” encourages thinking of the revolutionary act as no more than means to ends. Thus the greatest threat facing any revolution after the passing of its moment, is forgetfulness of that moment, or worse: turning that moment into nothing more than a ritualized commemoration in service of a new system of power.

That moment consists primarily of rare experiences that have spiritual qualities. To their participants, a revolutionary gathering exceeds any single demand: it addresses a felt need for a total social renewal. The mission then seems greater than simply replacing one ruler by another. At that moment, the ordinary person is in the revolution precisely because that is where she is not being ruled. There, she finally discovers what seems like an inborn, organic capacity to act as a sovereign agent: without instructions, without authority, even without a guiding tradition.

What one wants at that moment exceeds normal demands made in non-revolutionary time: correct an injustice here, an error there. In the revolutionary moment, what one wants exceeds familiar old grievances, all of which now merge under one concentrated demand for a new world. This total spiritual condition suggests to everyone involved that the revolution is greater than any particularism. The consciousness of totality makes its appearance as a sudden revelation, comparable to prophetic vision: the moment when a hitherto unseen truth illuminates the whole existence.

In this sense, the moment of the revolution signals an explosion of an order too lacking in dynamism to be maintained, anticipating the rise of a new universe out of it, but not one that will unfold in a way that could be seen from the point of view of the moment of explosion. This explosive spirituality resides in the necessity of doing what must be done, with only imagination, rather than plan, guiding the thinking about where it might lead.

Do not let what came next contaminate what has been revealed in that moment.

Goal — after the moment

Because they are a temporary gathering of a million agendas, mass revolts never have a single goal, even though they may appear united around overthrowing a regime. But they do not agree on the exact shape of what comes after the regime, nor do they even agree on what “the regime” is. A mass revolt happens when reformers join nihilists; feminists march next to patriarchs; former regime loyalists find common cause with those who had been tortured by it; peasants join urbanites; respectable classes clasp hands with the lumpen proletariat; the high ceases to regard itself to be distant from the low; the low regards the high as equal.

After they have scored their first major victory against the existing power structure, these agendas begin to reveal their differences, differences they had suppressed so as to maintain their temporary unity against a common enemy, and so as to fully revel in the novel spiritual character of the revolutionary moment. After that they ask: where do we go from here? Do we reestablish an ancient, noble, and forgotten tradition, or do we build a new society altogether? Should we follow an existing model, or provide ourselves with license for unlimited originality, itself justified by our demonstrated success?

And then another major question rears its divisive head: have we really overthrown the regime? To answer this, we realize that in our temporary unity, we avoided this question too: what was the regime? That we need now to know, because the answer will help us have some plan as to where to go from here, to determine how much of “the regime” is gone and how much still needs to be uprooted so as to arrive at the “goals of the revolution.” For some revolutionaries, the regime was simply the head of the regime. For others, it was an entire corrupt class surrounding it and benefiting from it. For others still, the regime is everyday life—the rotten head has infected all of society, and caused all society, its mores and social relations, to become equally rotten. For those, that society, too, needs to be overthrown. The old society, all of it, was “the regime.”

These disagreements will be as numerous as the revolution is great in size. And they are the reason why revolutions often lead directly to civil wars. But such differences cannot be stamped out by civil war, nor by a revolutionary dictatorship, both of which simply pit one part of the revolution against another. They can only be handled by the communicative openness that had already occasioned the spirit of the revolutionary moment, by the enlightenment that had begun to emerge from below, intuitively and effortlessly, at that moment, before revolutionaries began to fixate on specific agendas, getting lost in the minutiae of party politics, in the myopias of post-revolutionary power games, and ceased to know what to do with the fact that the spirit of the revolution was larger than any of its specific goals.

The revolution is you, plus many others who are not you.


Revolutions are human decisions, taken freely and in the face of danger. They do not happen out of obedience to “objective laws.” They may be driven by existing social problems or grievances: poverty; repression; corruption; obscene inequality, and so on. But those problems and grievances alone do not generate a revolution, especially if they have always been there. In fact, sometimes revolutions break out precisely when there are actual improvements in those conditions.

In an unjust world, there are always alternatives to revolt: the idea of fate; personal hedonism; intellectual immersions; criminality; clannish solidarity; the morality of fortitude; mind altering substances; soothing rituals; suicide; nihilism; graduate study. A revolution, therefore, is always a choice among other choices.

Revolutions are never inevitable, and injustices can last for centuries, becoming frozen as “reality,” or “tradition,” regarded as the normal and only known structure of the world. The revolutionary decision therefore is a choice to disregard reality and realism. It is a choice to act as an agent, to act freely and to feel freedom not as a theoretical principle, but as a new force that is itself creating this new person doing what a day before the revolution seemed to be outside of all realism. Revolutions, therefore, are primarily decisions against realism, and as such they create the free person who undertakes them and, in the process, empirically verifies a principle that previously had lacked credibility: that a different world is possible.


All revolutions will eventually be seen by some participants to have been betrayed, especially when they, as is usual, house multiple goals and clashing expectation.

A common strategy of betrayal takes the form of the monopoly of memory. Monopoly of memory means that the revolution, along with its memory or heritage, has become monopolized by one faction against all others. In this case, those who see this betrayal will say that the “goals of the revolution” have been abandoned, or that the revolution has strayed from its path. But revolutions may have as many goals as they have revolutionaries, and consequently as many imagined pathways. Here, “betrayal” will be seen in someone’s choice to highlight one goal and disregard another, in someone’s feeling that a preferred path was not taken, even though it could have been, or that the revolution has stopped short, when it could have gone further.

Conversely, revolutions may be felt to be betrayed when they are monopolized by a radical tendency, a tendency that had been part, but not all, of the social energy that had unleashed the revolution. Or revolutions may be felt to be betrayed when they incorporate part of the old regime, either because part of the old regime has been part of the revolution, or because part of the revolution has always believed that there was a clean part of the old regime.

All of the above must be distinguished from the counter-revolution, which cannot be said to “betray” a revolution it has always been looking for the first opportunity to stab, in the back or in the front.

More generally, revolutions may be said to be betrayed when they are forgotten. That is, they are betrayed when the effort to understand how they had exploded is discouraged; when their early spirit, their sheer novelty, becomes inaudible as one is encouraged to focus entirely on the current sorry state to which they have led. They are betrayed when they are no longer regarded as grand acts in their own right, but simply as means to ends. They are betrayed when they cease to be seen as human decisions, taken as a choice in the face of danger, but as slavish obedience to objective laws. They are betrayed when they are seen entirely as functions of necessity, not as acts of freedom; when the agent that has made them, the ordinary person, is told to go home, and let those who know better take care of the post-revolutionary business. In other words, the greatest enemy of all revolutions is forgetfulness, because it attacks the core of the revolutionary experience: how it defied odds, reality, rationality, and all that had seemed ordinary, solid and eternal.


Revolutions tend to share patterns that in retrospect are realized to have been appropriate for their times. Those patterns do not make revolutions any less surprising, because the revolutionary pattern of each era corresponds to where power has become porous then. A viable revolution today will typically not attack the regime from an angle at which the regime had been vulnerable in a previous revolution. That old vulnerability will now be already known and sealed. Students of revolutions may expect the next revolution to mimic a pattern they are already familiar with, but the new revolution will be most successful if it defies that expectation: its viability relies on it doing something original and unexpected.

The Arab uprisings of the current era, namely those of 2011 and 2019 (but not the civil wars that followed), reveal shared patterns: they all start out first in marginal, neglected areas, from which they migrate into the well-fortified center. They rely on spontaneity as their art of moving, not on organization, structure, or even a plan. They are suspicious of vanguardism, and seem to intuitively reject any strong idea of leadership. They prefer loose coordinating structures, and “coordinators” emerge as a new revolutionary species, indicating that revolutions now need sharing of information more than centralized guidance. They operate largely at a distance from political parties, and in fact give rise to no party that can claim to represent or embody the revolution. The agent of the revolution and the maker of history is the ordinary person, not the savior leader. Amidst this movement, the “citizen” begins to see himself as such to the extent that he brings “society” into being out of his action directly, at which point the “citizen” becomes a felt concept. He momentarily forgets an older idea of citizenship: the “citizen” as a passive expression of an established fact of belonging to some abstract “society.” At the same time, those revolutions spoke in the name of a vague and large entity called “the people,” not of any sub-group, class, tribe, sect, or even the “meek of the earth.” That generality expressed their character as a meeting place of all grievances.

And in all cases, their enemy, “the regime,” also shows the same pattern: dulled by a generation or two in uncontested power, it could respond only with a combination of brute force and minor concessions, which were always too little and too late to tame the sudden flood of social energy confronting it. The regime did not know any game other than that of the established system, and thought of the revolution as a passing noise that will dissipate in due time. The main mode of governing had become autocratic deafness, across the entire region.

Thus while the patterns of revolt will always be innovative and surprising— because otherwise there can be no revolution— those of the regime can only be dull and predictable. That is why it is an established system to begin with. Unlike revolutions, systems tend to prefer to reproduce the only thing they know, which is themselves.

Yet, the counter-revolution already knows that repression alone would be unable to save it from revolution. Thus it needs to fortify itself against the nascent revolutionary culture by promoting counter-revolutionary culture, aimed at the spirit of the revolution. For example: in place of the ordinary person, counter-revolutionary culture elevates the savior leader as the only worthy maker of history; in place of the belief that had emerged in the revolutionary moment of “the people” as an enlightened and noble body, counter-revolution fosters an image of peoplehood as a savage, illiterate mob, to be feared and policed, rather than provided with freedom and entrusted with capacity.

The counter-revolution, therefore, will not maintain itself by repression alone, and it knows that repression alone had not saved the regime before. It can maintain itself only to the extent that its counter-revolutionary cultural offensive undermines the nascent revolutionary culture. Culture and ideas, therefore, become central battlegrounds in the age of counter-revolution.


Revolutions of the same era tend to learn from each other and copy each other’s tactics, even their slogans, and even when they take place in vastly different environments and respond to different conditions. In that sense one can think of local revolutions as instances of a global wave. This appearance of an era as being one of revolutions itself encourages further protest movements elsewhere in the world. A global wave seems to emerge out of the spread of a feeling, inspired by a large and chosen act of freedom, that another world is possible, perhaps immediately so.

In 1848 and 1989, a revolutionary wave moved across an entire region. The same happened in 2011, but then that wave continued to move globally and take the form of widespread protest movements characterized by a similar spirit. A global culture of protest emerged around identifiable common features: they all identified “corruption” of “the system” (by which they meant its deafness to the concerns of most people) as their main target; they saw the “little person” to be outside of all concern by “the system” (including democratic systems); they were suspicious of parties, organizations, or leaders, preferring instead loose networks and experimental structures; they displayed little interest in focus or “realism,” and seemed to be energized by a general utopian orientation; they spoke in the name of “the people” as a whole, or at least for some super-majority (“99%”), rather than of specific classes or groups; they understood a general peoplehood to be the opposite of “the system.” Their demands maintained generality and vagueness, thus confirming their status as a gathering space for all felt injuries. Vagueness also seemed well suited to the global wave’s experimental, youthful, convivial and overarching orientations toward totalistic thought and general social renewal.

Just as in the Arab case, where the revolutionary wave met counter-revolution, so did the global wave meet a global counter-wave. Both took place across dispersed geographies, indicating that like the revolutionary wave, the counter-revolutionary wave was inspired by a spreading feeling of threat or creeping disorder. The rise of an inter-linked right-wing populism globally after 2011 may indeed be an expression of a learning process of reaction, indicating the seriousness with which the revolutionary, or at least transformative, challenge was taken. And just as in the Arab case, the global counter-revolution learned from its encounter with revolution, real or imagined, that the old order must be defended in more authoritarian ways in the realm of policing and law, and more vigorously in the realm of ideas and culture.

Epistemological imperialism

While great waves of protest are associated with education, culture, and enlightenment, they may also be associated with an error: epistemological imperialism—the over-confident feeling that one has all the knowledge needed for emancipation already; that the galvanizing spectacle of revolutionary energy justifies regarding additional knowledge as superfluous, deviations as punishable offenses.

Ordinarily, epistemological imperialism tends to be a practice of an established mighty authority that, by virtue of its longevity or scope of its power, has become too confident of itself. But epistemological imperialism may also be a practice of opposition that, from long life under a certain power, could only think of revolution as an expression of a right to the same power.

Epistemological imperialism may also start out in embryo as an outgrowth of a local struggle expressed in universal language. In its embryonic form, this epistemology may be understandable as a rhetorical strategy of struggle, though criticizable as a logical strategy of knowledge. It begins to assume an imperialistic form when it is no longer based on simple ignorance, but on insistence on it. This insistence is driven, typically, by a sense that a local struggle is so central and so existential, that one must mobilize universal energy to sustain it. That posture, too, is fully understandable as an initial posture of local struggles, but inexcusable when the drive to mobilize universal support for it discourages further knowledge: knowledge of other people, other languages, other histories, other narratives.

The universal is always imperialistic when the only knowledge sought through it is confirmatory rather than transformative knowledge.

Epistemological imperialism is not any universal claim, since such claims may be required situationally. The inductive method, for example, is situational: one generalizes on the basis of partial knowledge, pending the availability of less partial knowledge. Epistemological imperialism, by contrast, is disinterest in any further knowledge, or interest in only the kind of knowledge that confirms an already existing partial knowledge, like that of Columbus: the world is not out there to be explored; it is there to confirm what I already know. The world is there to be conquered by my already known way of knowing, not to transform what I know. Discovery, therefore, has from the point of view of epistemological imperialism only quantitative rather than qualitative promise: it adds more of what I already know, not more to what I know.

Epistemological imperialism is a widespread practice, historically and in the present. It is independent of ideology. It is practiced by those in power, and also by those under its sway, although the former is more harmful: the destructive capacity of epistemological imperialism is proportional to the amount of power it has at its disposal. When it is not aligned to any power, epistemological imperialism could simply be harmless ignorance.

In revolutionary processes, therefore, one must always be wary of those who are too confident of their emancipatory knowledge, those for whom the revolution remains no more than an opportunity to exude energy. They may be today’s liberators, tomorrow’s dictators.


After every revolution, a new knowledge is needed not in order to predict how emancipation will happen. Rather, it is needed to the extent that it continues the enlightenment that the revolution had begun. That enlightenment had begun when one, dissatisfied with the familiar world, took a couple steps beyond it, and only then began to see what the familiar world had hidden from view: there was a revolutionary person residing deep inside the conformist, traditional person one had seen earlier. If we do not know how to see that hidden person, we will not see the revolution.