By Henry Heller
Erik Thomson
Radhika Desai

Jorge Nallin
Mara Fridell and
Peter Kulchyski

Detailed Description

Some believe revolutions are no longer possible and political and scholarly attention to them is waning. However, new developments world-wide are putting them front and centre again: economic stagnation and crisis, growing social inequality, a ruling stratum unmoored from the concerns of large sections of society and unable or unwilling to reform itself, a bemused academe and media, an alienated and unemployed youth, new political uprisings among youth, the underprivileged and especially among the world’s indigenous peoples. Historically such political upheaval has spread across national borders and such contagion is today only more assured and rapid in our ever more interconnected world. Indeed, whereas the twentieth century had confined revolution to the Third World, it is returning to haunt the citadels of economic and political power, including Trump’s America. For these reasons, and in light of the centenary year of the Russian Revolutions, we of the Geopolitical Economy Research Group (GERG), with the support for partnering institutions and journals (see budget and other documents below), at the University of Manitoba propose to hold a conference on revolutions in fall 2017.

Our conference has two main objectives and they define the key questions that we hope to address. Firstly, we hope to revitalize the study of revolution, and by implication, of social change, generally. Conference participants and keynotes will be invited to address the causes, contexts, conditions and consequences of modern revolutions, and the often spectacular political, social or economic events that confront politics, state structures, economies, cultures and societies, and transform them, though never, seemingly, in exactly the manner intended. There are many other themes here. There are the ideologies and imaginations that motivate revolutions, the developments and events that surprise them and the changing theories that have explained them. Revolutions have fraught relations with the democratization of modern life and it raises questions about the relationship between evolutionary and revolutionary change. They have reshaped class domination, colonialism and imperialism, patriarchy and racism. Debates over revolutions between theorists of left and right—a distinction, in itself, revolutionary in its origins—constitute a central strand of social and political thought. Attempts to contain or spread revolutionary ideologies and forces are regular features of modern international relations.

Secondly, in doing so, we hope to see modern revolutions in a single historical perspective. Revolutions in Europe and its settler offshoots (Tilly 2004) defined the modern age and the Russian Revolution occupies a pivotal position in this lineage. Harnessing Russia’s centuries-old traditions of revolt (Koenker and Rosenberg 2014), it opened ‘the Short Twentieth Century’ (Hobsbawm 1994). Occurring at the beginning of the Thirty Years’ Crisis (1914-45), it triggered the Cold War (Ibid; Goldstone 2014) and, by inspiring and supporting the Chinese Revolution that closed that long turbulence, formed the link between the revolutions in Europe and its offshoots and twentieth century revolutions in the Third World. Millions of people throughout the world aspired to the Soviet Revolution’s goals of social and economic equality, swelling the ranks Communist Parties and revolutionary armies, small or massive (Porter and Karsh 1984; Hallas 1985; Mackenzie 1997). In the Soviet Union, the revolution did not just overthrow the Imperial Russian state and society, it also reshaped the Czarist empire into a federation of nationalities which is rapidly modernized (Suny 2011). Given the centrality of Third World revolutions over the past century, and the rising relevance of indigenous revolts today, we propose to give special consideration to their common anti-colonial heritage which we trace to the aboriginal and slave revolts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. We also propose to examine the importance of non-Western ideologies in these uprisings more closely than has hitherto been the case.


Our conference will focus on a number of key questions

1. Should revolutions be distinguished from other forms of historical change?, The classical modern revolutions – the French, Russian and Chinese – overthrew states and their class structures by attacking both the ‘repressive state apparatuses’ – the police, army and prison system – and the ‘ideological state apparatuses’ i.e. the media, legal system, organized religion and the educational system. The degree to which they overhauled these is rightly taken to indicate the depth of the revolutionary transformation (Althusser 2014). However, must we not also consider revolution in a weaker sense, transformations which changed existing social relations and the state to a lesser degree but with lasting social, political and demographic consequences? By considering this wider repertoire of history’s makers, we might be in a better position to ask whether and how the forms of social change have changed and can be expected to change.

2. Are revolutions good things given the political violence and large-scale disruption they involve? Have they contributed to human progress or merely left a trail of chaos and death? Have they been outbursts of unreason and inhumanity, or do they embody some underlying historical reason? What does the historical record tell us about revolutions’ consequences? (Moore, 1972; Losurdo 2015)

3. Do revolutions have a future? Has some combination of the world-wide web of finance, unprecedented state surveillance, sophisticated techniques of political control and the spread of liberal democracy made revolutions difficult if not impossible? Or have these very structures and practices not also made them necessary? Did the end of the Cold war moderate political life for good (Fukuyama 1992; Kojève 2000)? Or do events since then suggest that revolutions – capitalist, nationalist and socialist – are endemic to the modern capitalist world and, moreover, subject to contagion?

4. What causes revolutions? Starting with Marx and Engels and continuing with V. I. Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Rosa Luxembourg (Harding 1978; Budgen, Kouvelakis and Zizek 2007; Day 2008), Antonio Gramsci, Mao Zedong (Meisner 1971), Marxists around the world have understood revolution as class struggle and an element of this remains key to the Marxisant writing of Franz Fanon (Sekyi-Otu 1996) or Amilcar Cabral(Chabal 1983). This tradition has also theorized top-down revolution: Lenin spoke of capitalism from above and Gramsci of passive revolution (Thomas 2013). Then there is the social science and historical literature of the 1960s onwards which purported to explain, and thereby predict, revolution (Paynton and Blackey 1971; Mann 1982; Tilly 1993; Gurr 2015) of which Theda Skopcol’s structural functionalist account, States and Revolution (1979), is a classic. Finally, counter- revolutionary writing, starting with Edmund Burke and Joseph De Maistre and continuing with Max Weber and Carl Schmitt, has decried the morality, effectiveness and dangers of revolution (Staum 1996; McMahon 2002; Blum 2004; Magalhaes 2016).

5. How are the largely capitalist revolutions of Europe and its offshoots connected to the socialist and nationalist revolutions that made the Third World? Lenin connected revolution in the advanced capitalist countries with the struggle against imperialism in the colonial world (Bagchi 1983; Riddell 2014). The latter moved to the revolutionary centre-state in the twentieth century. They challenged imperialism centrally (Amin 1990, 2006; Bagchi, 2009; Desai 2013), rejecting colonial and semi- colonial economic relations of complementarity with the dominant countries and attempting, through capitalist or socialist development, to establish similarity with them in a dialectic that is captured by Trotsky’s idea of uneven and combined development (Trotsky 1935). This makes Third World nationalist and socialist revolutions part of a lineage of ‘combined development’ going back to the rise of today’s advanced industrial countries, which challenged British industrial supremacy (Chang 2002) in the late nineteenth century. Can this framework provide a better understanding of the drivers of modern international relations? Or does it smack of a romantic ‘Third Worldism’ (Brenner 1977), which vainly expects radical transformation outside the homelands of capitalism?

6. Many have investigated the relationship between wars, militarism and the onset and course of revolutions (Teschke 2013; Lowenberg 1970). The French, Russian, German, and Chinese revolutions all attest to how internal strains within states, initially fomented by war, have produced significant revolutions. Arno Mayer related the Russian Revolution to the First World War (Mayer 1967, 1969, 2000) and the Thirty Years’ Crisis was bookended by the Russian and Chinese Revolutions. Great revolutions – French, Russian, Chinese – also helped to precipitate international wars, hot and cold, by upsetting the existing international order, even threatening internal stability in leading states. The wars of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Period, the First and Second World Wars and the Korean and Vietnam conflicts amply confirm this connection (Losurdo 2015).

7. Revolutions have intellectual consequences: for example, the Bolshevik Revolution transformed the study of international relations, displacing racialized Eurocentric theories that dominated it in the early twentieth century and brining the question of national sovereignty or internationalism to the fore following the Bolshevik publication of secret treaties (Desai 2013; Van der Pijl n.d, 2014).

8. We also hope to consider the cultural consequences of revolutions more widely. Revolutions have often led to increases in the educational level, political development and consciousness of the mass of the population. Revolutions have also been associated with important artistic movements: the French Revolution with the neoclassical and romantic movements and the Russian with Russian Constructivism and the abortive November Revolution with German Expressionism. Modernism, above all, is deeply related to the ideal and menace of revolution (Anderson 1984). How revolutions have affected particular artists like David, Byron, Shelley, Mayakovsky, Malevitch, Brecht, etc. also bears reflection (Stauffer 2005; Erjavec 2015). Revolutions also relate to the sciences. For example, Hooke and Newton during the English Revolution (Jacob 2010), Lavoisier and Priestly in the French Revolution (Gillispie 2014), or the Russian and the development of Russian physics and biology (Stites 1988; Graham 1993).

9. From the time of the Levellers in revolutionary England to the time of Alexandra Kollantai thinkers and activists have challenged the gendered division of work and politics and the established sexual and moral order, while anti-imperialism and anti-racism have long been critical to revolution. While the relationships between these different emancipatory movements have never been easy or unproblematic (Kandal 1990), they have arguably been historically necessary. The revolutions of the twentieth century brought major improvements in the lives of women (Zinsser 1993; Rowbotham 1973, 2014), and the tie between the enslavement of blacks and women was noted in writing as early as that of Mary Wollstonecraft. Outstanding theorists of the relationship between racial oppression and revolution have been Jose Carlos Marietegui (Marietegui 2011), Franz Fanon and W.E. Dubois (Mullen 2015).

10. There is, finally, the question of revolution and its failures. Subjectively, revolutions arouse expectations that they can never fulfill but which are critical to the revolutionary process. While considerable attention has been given to the subject of defeated revolutions, including those in Ireland (1798), Poland (1830), Europe (1848), Germany (1918-23), El Salvador (1932), Guatemala (1953) and the World (1968), at a time when the long-term implications of contemporary revolutions such as the Arab spring are as of yet undetermined, the question of expectations and their disappointment remains ripe.

Within this broad framework we invite considerations of past and present revolutions, their causes, characters and consequences.


The Conference

The conference will be held from 29 September – 1 October 2017. The Conference Organizing Committee, consisting of University of Manitoba faculty members from across the disciplines (Anthropology, Art, Economics, English, Geography, History, Political Studies, Sociology) and graduate and undergraduate student representation, was constituted in Summer 2016 to run the conference with administrative support from the Geopolitical Economy Research Group and, as necessary and possible, from the Centre for Global Studies (CFGS) and the Centre for Asia Pacific Initiatives (CAPI) both in Victoria. It finalised the Call for Papers which invites paper proposals and panel proposals the range of themes indicated in the key questions above in Fall 2016 and it is being widely circulated – to the nearly 2000 strong GERG list, on the email lists of cognate journals and organizations world-wide and on the websites of partnering journals and organizations. The Committee also began soliciting interest from supporting research institutions and journals and the response has been, and continues to be, strongly enthusiastic. Alongside this, graduate and undergraduate students constituted a committee of their own and began planning their participation in the conference through scholarly work, art and performance and by creating their own networks of scholarship and collaboration (See Letter from the University of Manitoba Student Action Network)

By 15 March 2017, the deadline for paper, panel and stream proposals, we will constitute the conference’s International Advisory Committee (IAC), consisting of members from UM and elsewhere in Canada and internationally, including members from participating journals and organizations, such that all themes are adequately provided with peer-review expertise to ensure high quality outcomes. During February, the IAC will also set up the sub-committees to referee proposals for each theme and participating editors of journals and others on the IAC who wish to produce volumes can also begin planning their thematic volumes for maximum visibility, impact and, where possible, open access.

We expect to elicit between 200 and 300 abstracts world-wide. They will be peer-reviewed and acceptances and rejections will be conveyed by 15 April 2015. We expect that about 150-200 abstracts will survive the peer review process. Final papers will be due on 1 August and will be openly accessible on the Conference website. Papers will be organized into and presented in 67 panels of 3 papers each. Panels will be organized into thematic streams. The Conference will have 7 parallel sessions and 3 plenaries. Presenters on each panel and attendees will be encouraged to read the papers in advance so as to generate deeper and more far-reaching discussion.


Description of the Research to be Mobilized, Exchanged, Transferred and Disseminated

We aim to mobilize social scientific and historical literature on revolutions – defined as the more or less rapid and usually violent overthrow of state authority and transformation of society and economy – to develop so it can illuminate the prospects and forms of social change in our times and in order to place modern revolutions in a single global historical perspective. This requires us to focus on the connections and dynamic interplay between the domestic and the international; the First, Second and Third Worlds; among indigenous struggles, state authority and wider social struggles; and between various coexisting forms of social, cultural, political and scientific revolutionary movements over time. The causes of revolutions, in this literature, include social and economic crisis; financial crisis; breakdown of the repressive apparatus; divisions within ruling elites; growing political discontent in the population; and the development of a unifying political ideology. The scholarly understanding of revolution has passed through four overlapping phases (Goldstone 2001):

  • Psychological, pathological-medical Gustav LeBon, Pitrim Sorokin and Crane Brinton.
  • Sociological study inspired by structural-functional, modernization or relative deprivation
    theories coincident with the height of the Cold War.
  • Neo-Marxist theories like Barrington Moore’s and Theda Skocpol’s emphasizing class conflict and
    the state.
  • The recent and eclectic theorizing designed to account for diverse revolutions like the Filipino
    Peoples, East European Anti-Communist, Colour and the Arab Spring revolutions stressing the
    importance demography, international relations, leadership, institutions, coalitions, culture and
    even performativity. Some have attempted to measure the outcome of revolutionary change.


  • Academic presenters including faculty, graduate students and post-doctoral scholars;
  • Undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Manitoba and other local post-secondary
    institutions and those able to access the conference through its website;
  • Readers of supporting journals and members of supporting organizations;
  • Policy-makers seeking more accurate understandings of national and international affairs;
  • Members of the public attending the conference at special conference, daily and half-day rates;
  • The media in Canada and abroad: We hope to publicise the conference widely through the national
    and international media.
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