Skip to main content

A Thesaurus of the Revolutionary Concept

I have long argued that we have a duty to reclaim and preserve the revolutionary concepts and terminology that have been won through class struggle. Core concepts of the science from Marx to Mao are scientific notions, key to building and operationalizing a revolutionary movement. To give up on these concepts because they have been rendered insensible to various strata of the masses due to decades of anti-communist propaganda, or to dismiss them as old-fashioned because they are out of step with academic fads, would be a mistake. Their meaning has been proven by class struggle, which makes them correct, and we cannot build a sustainable movement based on incorrect conceptions.

At the same time, and following Mao's criticisms in documents such as Oppose Stereotyped Party Writing, I am well aware that there are ways in which the terminology surrounding these concepts can be rendered sterile, their dynamic meaning locked in static formal patterns. We only need to look at the ways in which Trotskyite sects repeat terms such as "vanguard party" in stale and predictable ways. Saying the traditional words will not result in revolution; the terminology is not a set of magical spells.

New terminological exposures are required. To create a series of synonymous terms that preserve the scientific notions by provoking fresh engagements is not to abandon the concepts or substitute them with "better" versions but to instead translate the substance of a concept into another form. None of this should mean the abandonment of the original terminology since earlier formalizations of these concepts possess a familiarity, a connection with multiple sequences of revolutionary theory. My use of the word synonym is intentional: a given synonym of a word does not obliterate the use of the latter by upholding the superiority of the former; synonyms translate meaning by existing simultaneously and creating a nexus of meaning.

Every scientific notion demands a thesaurus of the concept. For, as I have always argued, it is not the name that possesses primary importance but the concept. While it is correct to recognize that a concept has received its most historically salient expression through a particular name (take, for example, the concept expressed by "vanguard party") it is incorrect to imagine that the same concept cannot be translated into a synonym that preserves the conceptual content while opening new nomological access points. A translation does not replace what is translated; it may even breath new life into the original term when placed in relation.

New terminology for existing concepts should not be mistaken for new concepts. The thesaurus does not catalogue conceptual replacements but synonyms (and antonyms) that are juxtaposed with the original word. New concepts are produced by the process of class revolution but that is a process outside of what I am arguing here. A thesaurus of the (revolutionary) concept, by definition, does nothing but generate synonyms of pre-existing concepts. Its function is to illuminate pre-existing concepts rather than invent new scientific notions. The practice of philosophy, which is primarily about forcing meaning upon a conceptual/theoretical terrain, should treat the thesaurus as a model: to talk about pre-existing and significant concepts demands the generation of synonyms and analogies, anything that can invoke the meaning behind the original terminology so as to provoke engagement.

Unfortunately, the creation and use of new terminology for pre-existing concepts occasionally produces the mistaken belief that new concepts are being wagered. On the one hand there will be those who want to abandon the initial formalization of the concepts by thinking the new terms are superior. On the other hand there are those who will dismiss new formalizations because, mistaking them to be theoretical substitutions, desire to cling only to the traditional terminology. Both apprehensions are incorrect because they are different responses to the erroneous conflation of name and concept. The point is not that the original concept has been replaced by something new but, again, that we are witnessing the construction of a revolutionary thesaurus. Hence, it was both regrettable but predictable that my use of the term partisan war machine as a synonym for the revolutionary party (further qualified as avant garde to think through the meaning of vanguard) was taken by some as a concept intended to replace what in fact it was meant to illuminate by synonym. I am sure there are others who mistakingly liked it, refusing to grasp that it was an argument, by way of another terminology, for the very thing they wanted to abandon as outmoded.

Indeed, Austerity Apparatus mainly functioned as an attempt to think through the problematic of the austerity discourse and the current conjuncture of crisis capitalism by using a variety of terms that were synonymous with revolutionary concepts without losing sight of the original concepts. Aside from the translation of the revolutionary party mentioned above, it also attempted to provoke a particular engagement with Lenin's theory of the state, recentering the instrumentalist conception of the state form by side-stepping the language that had allowed it to be mired in a variety of unhelpful debates. Since this small book was written in the shadow of Continuity & Rupture it unfortunately went unnoticed by many. But if it has any worth beyond its interrogation of the problematic of austerity, it is in its attempt to develop a thesaurus of the revolutionary concept. In this way it functions as an epilogue to Continuity & Rupture (that used the proper names of the concepts), of which The Communist Necessity was the prolegomena (a polemical clearing-ground of those concepts that stood in the way of revolutionary science). In this trilogy an appreciation of the meaning of revolutionary concepts can be observed: i) the attack on those theories that would relegate scientific notions of revolution to the historical dustbin; ii) a rigorous expose of revolutionary theory and its concepts according to their proper names; iii) a meditation on the concepts in the current conjuncture according to various synonyms that are also linked to the traditional nomenclature. Destruction, preservation, translation.

Any revolutionary movement worth its salt must produce new terminology that exists in juxtaposition with the old terminology. The former should not be abandoned, but the conceptions should not be allowed to function only according to the traditional jargon––they must be re-operationalized according to synonymous patterns of thought. These movements should not seek to create new concepts, however, but instead unlock and remotivate the received concepts according to fresh terminology. New conceptions will arrive, sometimes uninvited, when revolutions reach critical junctures. But these junctures will never be reached if we lock ourselves in stale and rigid repetition.